Navajo election at standstill amid confusion

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Chris Deschene By Jennifer Thomas Chris Deschene By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX (AP) -- With their presidential election less than two weeks away, Navajo Nation officials are weighing how to proceed with a race that has become increasingly embroiled in confusion amid a debate involving the tribe's language.

Navajo election officials began meeting Friday to consider following an order by the tribe's top court to postpone the Nov. 4 presidential race. The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors meeting came hours after the tribe's council voted to effectively erase a law requiring that candidates for tribal president be fluent in Navajo.

Two primary contenders had challenged Chris Deschene under that law, alleging he lied on his candidacy application.

On Thursday, the Navajo Supreme Court ordered Deschene off the ballot, rejecting his appeal of a lower court ruling that disqualified him from the race for refusing to demonstrate his ability to speak Navajo.

The tribal council convened soon after to consider an emergency bill that would let voters decide who is fluent.

Early Friday, after five hours of discussion, council members approved the measure on an 11-10 vote.

The legislation is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election, though it's unclear whether it could undo the Supreme Court's order to remove Deschene from the ballot.

The measure now goes to President Ben Shelly, who will have 10 days to sign or reject it. Shelly previously voiced support for the legislation.

Deschene spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said that if Shelly signs the legislation, Deschene will file a motion with the high court based on the new law.

"Last night was a major victory, not just for this race but for the Navajo people in general," Pearson said.

The presidential race has been largely overshadowed by the debate over the language's role in Navajo culture and tradition.

In its decision Thursday, the Supreme Court included a plea to members to protect the language, believed to be handed down by deities.

"Take care of our language, think about it, and that way, you will understand and know it," the justices wrote in Navajo, according to a translation of the ruling.

Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. went out earlier this month.

An attorney representing a group of Navajos who support Deschene sent a letter to the election board Thursday threatening a lawsuit if the election is stopped or the official ballot is changed.

The group said a general election can be postponed before it begins, but not halted once Navajos begin casting ballots.

Meanwhile, election officials asked attorneys for clarification on the Supreme Court order, including whether the entire election should be postponed or just the presidential race. The order requires that the third-place primary finisher be moved up to take Deschene's place.

Deschene has said he's proficient in the language. He refused to take a fluency test or answer questions in a deposition and a hearing, saying he was being unfairly singled out.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak it than any other single American Indian language. Of the tribe's more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.

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