Navajos to vote on role language will play in tribal presidency

FILE - In this Nov. 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation are choosing a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure while helping tribal members through a bitter dispute that has divided communities. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP, File)

FILE – In this Nov. 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation are choosing a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure while helping tribal members through a bitter dispute that has divided communities. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP, File)

Tribal law now requires top leaders to understand, be fluent; voters will decide whether to continue or ease the qualification.

By FELICIA FONSECA, The Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz. » It’s a question that dominated conversation in the Navajo Nation presidential election: Should the tribe’s top leader be fluent in the language?

Voters will settle that question Tuesday in a referendum vote.

Tribal law now requires candidates for tribal president and vice president to understand Navajo and speak it fluently, and read and write English — a qualification that can be enforced through tribal courts. An affirmative vote on the referendum would let individual Navajos decide whether candidates speak and understand Navajo well enough to hold office.

The debate goes beyond tribal politics and to the heart of the identity of Navajos. The language is a defining part of the tribe’s culture, said to be handed down by deities, but not all Navajos believe it should dictate who gets to seek the tribe’s top posts.

Judy Donaldson says she’s willing to let a Navajo president learn the language along the way, as long as that person is well educated and can navigate politics on and off the reservation. She said voters should question candidates at campaign rallies to get a true sense of where they stand.

“The voters know who they want to lead us,” she said. “They’re not just going to pick my uncle because he gave us 20 bucks. They’ll say, ‘look at this person here, he can do it, he has a Ph.D.'”

A simple majority of voters would have to approve the referendum for it to pass. The revised requirement would be in effect for the 2018 election.

The Navajo Nation Council approved the referendum after efforts to make changes to the fluency requirement failed through other legislation. It came as the result of Chris Deschene being disqualified from the most recent presidential race because he refused to show he could speak fluent Navajo.

Some Navajos rallied around him, questioning the definition of “fluency” and saying a well-educated Navajo who intended to learn the language shouldn’t be ruled out for the presidency. But others said Deschene lied when he attested to being fluent in the language and deserved to be knocked out of the race. The tribe’s high court ruled that fluency in Navajo is a reasonable requirement for the presidency.

More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, about 170,000 out of 300,000 tribal members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tiffany Manygoats doesn’t want to be counted among the non-speaking statistic and strives to learn the language, going so far as to seek out a partner who knows it.

“Being someone who doesn’t speak fluently and trying to learn my language and culture and everything, I don’t want to have our Navajo Nation president lacking what I lack,” she said. “It’s a little scary knowing it could die out pretty soon and I would be just another wash out.”

Tribal President Russell Begaye said the Navajo people should insist that the top two leaders speak Navajo, a language that the federal government tried to eradicate but also sought out for a code that helped win World War II.

“The referendum is part of this whole brainwashing agenda to say that we should lay down our language and assimilate into the American society,” Begaye said.

Christina Platero sees learning the Navajo language as a personal decision and one made within families, not one tribal government should mandate. Not knowing the language fluently shouldn’t be a black mark against candidates, she said, and suggested the president could have an interpreter to speak with tribal members who don’t understand English.

Above all, she encouraged Navajos to vote Tuesday.

“Think about it first before you make that decision, think about the consequences,” she said.

Montana governor signs bills to preserve Indian languages

By Lisa Baumann, The Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s governor signed bills Wednesday aimed at encouraging schools to develop American Indian language immersion programs and preserving Indian languages.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed the bills at the Capitol, after a tribal prayer and song and after bill sponsors Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and Rep. George Kipp, D-Heart Butte, presented Bullock with an eagle feather and braided sweetgrass in appreciation.

“Montana is leading the nation in the promotion and preservation of tribal languages,” Bullock said. “Tribal languages are more than just a collection of words and phrases tied together. They represent the culture and history of not only Native Americans in our state, but in fact, they represent the culture and history of our entire state.”

Windy Boy said what makes new laws unique is that the Legislature saw the importance and took action.

“They voted and passed this law, based on its own merits and that it is the right thing to do, not forced to do so by any court order,” he said referring to the Indian Education For All Act passed during the 1999 session after a court ruling.

The language immersion law sponsored by Windy Boy will provide $45,000 in the next two years for the creation of programs in schools with Indian student enrollment of at least 10 percent.

It’s enough money to allow roughly five school districts to be compensated for immersion programs with a certified specialist teaching 17 students in an Indian language for half the day, according to state legislative analyst Pad McCracken.

Currently no public schools offer Indian language immersion programs, but three private K-12 Native language immersion schools exist in the state. Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Dennis Parman said Wednesday that teachers holding the license needed to teach Indian language immersion classes already work in some of the 88 public schools that would be eligible for the programs.

“We’ve visited with some schools over the years that have had interest in starting some of these programs,” he said. “They just haven’t gone there. This provides the incentive to do it.”

Parman added the amount of money might not sound like much, but the programs would build on existing classrooms with a teacher and materials, which are already funded, and add immersion to it.

Kipp’s bill will extend the Montana Indian Language Preservation program, which was started in the 2013 legislative session after Windy Boy sponsored that bill. Under the measure, $1.5 million will go to support the efforts of Montana tribes to preserve Indian languages in the form of spoken, written word or sign language over the next two years. Some of the money will also assist in the preservation and curricular goals of Montana’s Indian Education for All Program.

“The Montana Indian Language Preservation Program has helped tribes pursue innovative approaches to ensuring these languages are passed on to future generations,” Kipp said of his measure. “Today’s signing will ensure that good work continues, and we are able build on the foundational efforts that are taking place across Montana.”