Language factors into race for Navajo president

by FELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – Chris Deschene says he has the resume to preside over the country’s largest American Indian reservation. He’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served in the Marines, owns a private law practice, and aims to defend tribal tradition in the Navajo Nation’s top elected post.

But his critics say he’s missing at least one thing, and it’s crucial. They say he doesn’t know how to speak Navajo fluently and should be disqualified from the presidential race because it is a requirement for candidates under tribal law. Deschene says fluency is a matter of opinion and that his language skills are getting better every day.

The issue came to a head when several Navajo citizens and presidential candidates filed grievances against Deschene, saying he shouldn’t appear on the ballot in November’s general election. The challenges were dismissed this week as being untimely or lacking standing, but they can be appealed to the tribe’s Supreme Court.

The Navajo language is a vital part of the tribe’s culture, most commonly spoken among elderly Navajo people as their first language and less so among younger generations. Most tribal members grow up hearing it at home and in prayers and songs recited during ceremonies. It is perhaps most well-known outside the reservation for its use during World War II in a code that the Japanese couldn’t break.

When Navajos sign up to run for tribal president, they attest to being fluent in the language. Kimmeth Yazzie of the Navajo Election Administration says the document is taken at face value, and election officials aren’t allowed to investigate the qualifications. That authority is delegated to the tribe’s Office of Hearings and Appeals when candidates for the same office file a challenge within a certain timeframe.

Deschene, 43, said he has never misled voters into believing he thoroughly knows the language. He speaks Navajo in online advertisements, in the homes of elders and says he’s well-versed in traditional songs and ceremonies.

“I’ve made a commitment to the language, and I’ve stated a number of times that my personal goal is to be completely fluent by the end of my first term,” said Deschene, of LeChee on the western side of the reservation.

Percy Deal, one of Deschene’s critics on the language issue, commended Deschene for his willingness to learn Navajo but said he should become fluent and seek office again in four years. Deschene should understand as a lawyer, former Democratic nominee for Arizona secretary of state and onetime state representative that he shouldn’t skirt the law, Deal said.

“The laws have to apply to everybody,” he said. “Nobody is above the law.”

Determining whether a person is fluent isn’t easy, said Michele Kiser, who teaches Navajo at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She said teachers can take a proficiency test that includes speaking, reading and writing, but there is not a set of defined parameters for determining fluency.

“Fluency is a continuum, really,” she said.

Some 169,000 people speak Navajo at home, more than any other American Indian language, according to census figures released in 2011. But Kiser said that data doesn’t show how many are considered fluent speakers.

Deschene came in second to former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. in the tribe’s primary election last month among 17 candidates, earning him a spot in the general election. Traditional, conservative voters tend to choose candidates who can speak Navajo, understand them and who have a strong cultural upbringing, said Manley Begay, who is Navajo and a professor in applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University.

“Clearly there were some of the traditionalists supporting Chris Deschene, partly because of his appeal and youthfulness and also some of his ideas and thoughts might resonate with them,” Begay said.

The grievances filed against Deschene were the first over the language requirements, said Richie Nez, chief hearing officer for the Office of Hearings and Appeals.

Other presidential candidates have been challenged on term limits and residency, though living or having a continual presence on the reservation is no longer required.

Shirley lost a bid four years ago to seek a third, consecutive term because Navajo law limits presidents to two back-to-back terms. Shirley argued that Navajos have the right to freely choose their leaders under traditional law.

A presidential candidate in 2002 argued that he met residency requirements for the job despite living off the reservation because his umbilical cord was buried there, forever tying him to the land. Edward T. Begay’s name was placed on the primary ballot as a matter of fairness, after the tribe’s high court determined all candidates were not treated equally.

17 file in race to become next Navajo president

Written by: Associated Press

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) – The race to become president on the nation’s largest American Indian reservation has drawn a crowded field of seasoned politicians, a woman, political newcomers and the incumbent.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly will be challenged by 16 others in his bid for a second term. Among them are former President Joe Shirley Jr., tribal lawmakers Kenneth Maryboy and Russell Begaye, Carrie Lynn Martin and the third-place finisher in the 2010 primary, Donald Benally.

Navajos will choose two candidates on Aug. 26 to move on to November’s general election. They will also narrow down the list of those seeking a seat on the 24-member Navajo Nation Council. One lawmaker, Jonathan Nez, is running unopposed while other legislative races feature up to nine candidates.

At stake is management of a vast reservation that covers 27,000 square miles and representation of about 300,000 tribal members, not all of whom live on the Navajo Nation. Presidential candidates often focus their platforms on education, services for veterans, ensuring Navajos have a voice in their government and economic development in an area where half the workforce is unemployed.

Nine of the presidential candidates are from the Arizona portion of the reservation, seven are from New Mexico and one is from Utah.

Some of the candidates share hometowns. Shirley and Myron McLaughlin are from Chinle; Chris Deschene and Dale Tsosie are from LeChee; and Begaye, Donald Benally, Duane” Chili” Yazzie and Dan Smith are from Shiprock, New Mexico.

The other candidates are tribal elections director Edison Wauneka, former lawmaker Kee Yazzie Mann, Hank Whitethorne, Edison “Chip” Begay, Moroni Benally and businessman Cal Nez.

Indian Affairs Experts Already Jockeying to be President Hillary’s Native Guru

Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

Many Democratic Indian-focused strategists are betting that Hillary Clinton will choose to run for president in 2016, and some are working feverishly in these summer doldrums – 17 months out from any serious presidential campaigning – to convince her and her associates that they would be best to handle her Native American portfolio.

The former First Lady, New York senator, and Secretary of State has not even said that she plans to run again, but she has signaled anew that she cares about some key American constituencies. Her speech at the American Bar Association’s (ABA) annual meeting in San Francisco on August 12 crystalized her focus.

“We do — let’s admit it — have a long history of shutting people out: African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities,” Clinton said. “And throughout our history, we have found too many ways to divide and exclude people from their ownership of the law and protection from the law.

“Skepticism of authority has been part of our national character since the Pilgrims, and complaining about government is a treasured American pastime,” Clinton added, as part of her overall point of wanting to build confidence in government.

Native Americans and the injustices long served to them were conspicuous in their absence from Clinton’s speech, and now, several American Indian affairs gurus are lining up to ensure she will remember to specifically address Indian country’s economic and social needs in the future, especially if she happens to want to do so from the perch of the White House.

Old and new Native-focused friends of the Clintons are eager to help get out the vote, raise money, and develop sweeping, reservation-changing platforms. As shown in past presidential elections, resoundingly in 2008 and again in 2012, this is an area ripe with votes, and especially with cash, thanks to some wealthy tribes.

Mary Smith, a Cherokee Nation citizen and partner at Schoeman Updike & Kaufman, is one of the early frontrunners. While attending the ABA meeting this year – where she had the connections to score tickets to Clinton’s big speech – she didn’t hesitate to remind lawyers gathered there how much she has done for the Clinton family in the past, having been a member of the D.C. Finance Committee for Hillary Clinton for President until the candidate dropped out in June 2008. Plus, she worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration both as a Justice Department lawyer and in the White House counsel’s office.

President Barack Obama later nominated Smith to lead the Justice Department’s tax division in 2009, but her nomination was blocked by senators who expressed concern about her lack of experience in the tax industry.

Smith, perhaps realizing that her boasts were making the rounds, told Indian Country Today Media Network that she was just there to attend the meeting, as she usually does, but legal officials who met with her said there’s no doubt she’s wired into the Clinton camp again, and she’s more than ready to go to bat for Indian country.

While Smith is off to a solid start, she will face steep competition from other Indian legal eagles who aim to secure a win for Indian country with Clinton.

Kimberly Teehee, also Cherokee and Obama’s former White House Native affairs policy advisor, is widely expected to make a play to lead Native political outreach for Clinton. Now a lobbyist for the Mapetsi tribal policy group, Teehee has been making behind the scenes overtures to those connected to the Clinton camp. Her widespread name visibility in Indian country will be helpful, but some run-ins with tribal leaders on Indian policy issues as a result of working in the Obama White House and as a congressional staffer could haunt her effort. She’s also told friends that she’s enjoying her rest from working for politicians, so only she knows if she’s ready for the Clinton rollercoaster.

Holly Cook Macarro, Red Lake Ojibwe, is another legal ace who is working hard to make sure the Clinton camp knows her name. A former Democratic National Committee staffer and member of the Clinton administration’s White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, she’s now a tribal lobbyist with Ietan Consulting. Married to tribal chairman Mark Macarro, of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, she has many, many friends in Indian country, and her jobs haven’t called for her to get into many squabbles with tribal leaders.

In recent years, Cook Macarro’s firm has developed an alliance with the Holland & Knight law firm, where lawyer Lynn Cutler serves as a senior advisor. Cutler joined the firm in 2001, after serving as senior staff to President Bill Clinton on Intergovernmental Affairs where she was in charge of overseeing advocacy for tribal governments.

Cook Macarro has a strong relationship with Cutler, both from their firms’ current strategic relationship and from having worked under her during the Clinton administration. She knows how important her in with Cutler will be if Clinton does run, and she even includes a note in her official biography to affirm the relationship.

Debora Juarez, meanwhile, a Blackfeet lawyer with Williams Kaster who is based in Washington state is also staking a claim. “I don’t plan on being in [Washington, D.C.] anytime soon…not until My Girl Hillary runs for President!” Juarez recently told ICTMN. “I plan on being there and suffering in the ‘other Washington’ for HRC Campaign.” Juarez was a delegate for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and said she’d love to do it all over again.

All of these strong-minded Indian women will also have sharp-elbowed Indian men to contend with in their efforts to court Hillary.

The tribal affairs crew at Arent Fox law firm have an early in, for instance, having recently facilitated a partnership between the Clinton Global Initiative and six South Dakota tribes in developing a joint wind energy project. And it was Richard Trudell, the Sioux director of the American Indian Lawyer Training Program, and Kevin Gover, the Pawnee director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs under President Clinton, who previously had the closest Indian ties to the Clintons.

While Gover has long said he’s quite comfortable at the museum, who knows what could entice him back to the political frontlines? He isn’t saying. “I’m totally out of the loop on this sort of thing now,” he said. “I only know what I read in ICT[MN].”

Trudell, too, hasn’t said if he’s trying to get back in the Clinton’s good graces.

Philip Baker-Shenk, a Republican Indian affairs lawyer who battled to help Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his presidential ambitions, is one who is willing to talk, probably because the stakes for him are low this season. Based on his experiences, he said the circle of friends and former aides are jockeying at their hardest right now, trying to gain attention, favor—anything they can do to be on the winning team.

“It is an often brutal contest over who is more loyal than whom,” Baker-Shenk shared. “The loyalists chat up her chances, organize visible and financial support for her campaign, and arrange her meetings with key people. The competition for a candidate’s time and attention quickly moves to a feverish campaign pace, when every minute on the schedule is the result of negotiated trade-offs and winners and losers.

“With most national candidates, the Indian portfolio has been like the flip side of a hit record – an afterthought, a filler,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop Indian loyalists from trying. Nor should it.”



President Ted Nugent? We Have Nothing to Fear But… uh, Everything!

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

On news today that rocker Ted Nugent, the Motor City Madman, may run for president in 2016, ICTMN asks one question: How would a President Nuge be for Indian country?

Well, we know he’d protect your Second Amendment rights.

And as ICTMN reported in April, he’s boldy stated his credentials for being an authoritative voice for Indian country (albeit in defense of his supporting the Washington Redskins logo). “Because of my clean and sober, hands-on conservation bowhunting lifestyle and song ‘The Great White Buffalo,’ Native American tribes have invited me to teach their young people how to reconnect with the land and teach them how to bow hunt the mighty American bison. It was in their midst that I learned firsthand about the terrible problems facing my Indian BloodBrothers.”

He’s also this guy. Not looking very presidential. But very intense. Edward Snowden would never have gotten away if there was a President Nuge.

Read The Washington Post Magazine article that moves the Nuge into contention for 2016 HERE.