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.

A coach as Vader?

Director unveils cast of Navajo ‘Star Wars’

 
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By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times
WINDOW ROCK, May 23, 2013

T he Force proved to be strong with this group of Navajos as they earned the seven primary roles in the upcoming Navajo-language version of “Star Wars.”

Terry Teller, of Lukachukai, Ariz. will be the voice of Luke Skywalker.

“It is pretty pretty awesome,” Teller said happily, adding that he enjoyed the audition because it required him to really act. “Since it was going to be the first movie in Navajo I wanted it to be the best,” he said. “I challenged myself to play the role, as it needs to be. It was hard because I have never done anything like that before.”

Anderson Kee of Cottonwood, Ariz. will be the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Kee said the way the Obi-Wan Kenobi talks about the Force in the movie reminds him of a Navajo medicine man, especially when he says the words in Navajo.

“It was a new experience for me,” he said.

Clarissa Yazzie of Rock Point, Ariz. will be the voice of Princess Leia.

Yazzie said she enjoys Princess Leia’s sarcastic and dominating personality because she feels that her personality closely resembles Leia’s.

“I was excited to just be a part of the whole experience,” she said.

James Junes of Farmington, N.M. is the voice of Han Solo – and one of the very few experienced actors to win a part. Junes is part of the comedy team James and Ernie, and has had roles in low-budget films on the Navajo Nation.

Marvin Yellowhair of N.M. is the voice of Darth Vader.

Yellowhair said he wanted to be Darth Vader because he is the main character he remembers from Star Wars, mostly due to the fact that the villain is always in control and he is a leader. He said it related to him as a coach at Rock Point High.

“It felt so good being involved with this project,” he said.

James Bilagody of Ariz., another experienced performer, is the voice of General Tarkin.

The Navajo voice of C-3PO is a “surprise,” said director Ellyn Stern Epcar. “It will be unveiled on July third.”

“All the people that were cast fit the voice perfectly and they gave awesome performances,” said Manuelito Wheeler, Navajo Nation Museum director. “The directors, they chose the right people.”

Epcar is from Epcar Entertainment, a company based out of Los Angeles, Calif. She was hired under Deluxe Entertainment to direct the dubbed film. She said she has been doing this type of work for over 30 years.

“This isn’t a film this is about saving a language, this is about preserving a language,” said Epcar of the Navajo-dubbed Star Wars. “This takes on more importance of anything I’ve ever done. I feel profoundly humbled to be a part of this.”