FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajos have voted to loosen language requirements for their top leaders, eliminating the need for them to be fluent in Navajo and giving voters more discretion in who can hold elected office.
The passage of the referendum also raises the possibility that the Navajo Nation could elect a non-Navajo-speaking president and vice president in the future, starting with the 2018 election. Tuesday's vote is a victory for Navajos who rallied around a presidential candidate who was disqualified from the race last year for refusing to have his language skills tested.
"It tells me that a majority of the Navajo people would like to see youth back at the leadership table," said tribal lawmaker Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the language referendum and joined a crowd gathered in Window Rock where the results were broadcast. "It shows the Navajo democracy at work."
Others argued that not having a president speak fluent Navajo diminishes the language that is a defining part of the tribe's culture and is recognized worldwide as the basis for a code that helped the U.S. win World War II. More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, but it's not widespread among the younger generation.
Bernadette Todacheene, 65, of Shiprock, New Mexico, said Navajos have fought hard to maintain their language through U.S. government efforts to assimilate them into the American society and didn't want to see those struggles dismissed. She voted against the referendum.
"It is a perplexing point and time where we cannot, we cannot step back," she said.
Navajo President Russell Begaye also advocated for keeping the fluency requirement intact.
Not all tribes have a language requirement for their leaders. The neighboring Hopi Tribe requires its top elected official to be fluent in Hopi, for example, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe requires the leader to speak Apache. Other tribal constitutions don't address language skills.
Unofficial results from the Navajo referendum showed that it passed by more than 1,200 votes with all precincts reporting. That means Navajo will determine if candidates for president and vice president speak and understand the language well enough to hold office when they cast their votes. Previously, candidates had to understand Navajo and speak it fluently, a requirement that could be enforced by tribal courts.
More than 122,000 Navajos were registered to vote in Tuesday's referendum that gave tribal members a rare chance to change tribal law.
The Navajo Nation Council called for the referendum months after Chris Deschene was dropped from the presidential race over a question of Navajo language fluency. The issue overshadowed the election that was delayed for months by court challenges, first filed against Deschene.
Terry Teller, of Lukachukai, grew up speaking Navajo but said it's not easy to learn and the fluency requirement kept younger Navajos out of the upper level of politics.
"It discourages Navajos who are educated and live off the reservation to return and help their people," said Teller, 36.
Tsosie said he planned to sponsor legislation to create a Navajo language commission that would develop resources to help people learn the language.
About a handful of other referendum elections have been held on the reservation, including one that rejected a tribal takeover of federal health care services and three on tribal casinos. The only citizen-led ballot measures resulted in a significant cut in the number of tribal lawmakers and a presidential line-item veto.