The Language Problem in the Navajo Nation Presidential Election

by | October 29, 2014

By John M. Glionna

Navajo elder Jay Tsosie winces when he recalls those torturous classroom drills from his childhood.

Back when the 77-year-old was a skinny, rambunctious schoolboy, teachers from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to exorcise a part of Tsosie he considers integral to his very being: his native language.

When caught whispering Navajo to classmates, Tsosie felt the wrath of an often sadistic English-only system: Teachers washed his mouth with soap and forced him to kneel on pencils and hold two heavy soda bottles in his outstretched arms.

"Some days," Tsosie said, "I had to write on the blackboard 100 times: 'I will not speak Navajo.' "

Decades later, the Navajo tongue has triggered a major rift in the upcoming presidential election of the country's largest sovereign Native American nation.

Last week the tribe's high court struck candidate Christopher Deschene from the ballot because other contenders disputed that he was fluent in Navajo, a requirement for the office under tribal law. Deschene also refused to take a language competency test.

The subject may be politics, but the underlying issue is identity. "Our sacred language defines us as individuals and as a Nation," the justices wrote in their decision.

On Thursday, the high court postponed the election, originally set for next month, to allow officials time to print new ballots without Deschene's name.

Efforts to reach Deschene for comment were unsuccessful.

Some support the court's ruling, calling fluency in the ancient language a critical ability to lead the nation of 300,000 members, many of whom live off the reservation. The requirement, they said, evolved from the BIA's efforts years ago to quash the language.

To ignore the requirement, they say, insults elders such as Tsosie who as youth paid the price for speaking Navajo under the control of the BIA, which many said stood for "Boss Indians Around." How else can a leader reach older monolingual Navajo?

But a 94-year-old woman who said she was Deschene's grandmother says he speaks Navajo well enough to carry on a conversation about his plans as president. "I understand him," she said through an interpreter.

Others say the requirement penalizes younger non-fluent Navajos for doing just what their own tribe encourages them to do: Get an education in the outside world.

Along the state road south to Gallup, N.M., a route designated the Code Talker Highway to memorialize Navajos who used their native language as a tool against the Japanese in World War II, billboards showing young Navajos in graduation gowns carry inspiring slogans: "Climb the ladder," "Go Out Into the World" and "Learn English."

Deschene, 43, was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Indian Country. He earned his master's degree in engineering and later received a law degree, said his campaign. The father of two also served in the Marine Corps.

As a result, many here call Deschene a role model, not an embarrassment. "We teach our kids to get that education and then to come back to the reservation and help their people, just like Chris did," said Art Huskey, 71, as he stood outside the tribal council chambers Thursday. "Part of the sacrifice might be forgetting some of their Navajo."

Huskey says Navajo has long been on the decline. He and other protesters say that decades ago, 90 percent of tribal first-graders spoke the language fluently. Now that percentage is 30 percent. He said only one of his four children and none of his grandkids speaks the language.

Huskey was among the scores of people who protested Thursday outside the government building in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation, the largest territory of a sovereign Native American nation in North America. The area is known for exotic rock formations that evoke myriad shapes _ there's Ship Rock and Church Rock _ and is sacred in Navajo culture.

Huskey, an electrical lineman who works off-reservation, said he speaks more English and Spanish than Navajo to survive in the outside job market: "No matter how you try to maintain the language, we fend for ourselves in the outside society dominated by English."

Holding a protest sign, half-Navajo Mattie Christensen said she feels 100 percent Navajo, no matter her linguistic skills. "People try to put me down," she said. "They say, 'You can't even speak the language.' Well, you can't take my culture away from me."

But Sarah White holds the tribal president to a higher standard. "If my grandson grows up not speaking Navajo, that's his choice, but if he ever ran for tribal president, I'd say, 'Learn the language first. That's the only way you're going to feel and taste the experience of everyday Navajo life.' "

Tsosie says that while he still speaks Navajo, he won't teach his grandchildren the complicated language that lacks clear vocabulary for some English words. For example, "computer" becomes "thinking metal."

"What's the use?" Tsosie said. "We've been discouraged from using our language all our lives. Why make this an issue now when we have a bright young lawyer who wants to return to lead our tribe? Speaking the language is not going to do him any good, other than talking to the old folks. There are translators for that."

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times