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Navajo Nation president vetoes bill to address language issue

Chris Deschene and his running mate, Fannie Atcitty, campaign on the Navajo Nation. Photo from Facebook

Next week's Navajo Nation election remains in doubt after President Ben Shelly vetoed legislation that would have addressed a Navajo language issue affecting one of the candidates.

Shelly refused to sign off on Bill 0298-14, which would have eased the fluency requirement for presidential candidates. He said the people -- not the Navajo Nation Council -- should decide whether they want to change the tribe's election laws.

“The decision to amend the language requirements in Title 11, the Navajo Nation Election Code, must be brought before the Navajo people through a referendum vote,” Shelly said in a press release. “This decision is far too important and it is one the people need to decide on."

The council passed the bill last week by a narrow 11-10 margin. The measure did not remove the fluency requirement but said voters should be able to choose who represents them.

The failure of the bill again puts the candidacy of Chris Deschene, who came in second in the tribe's primary, in doubt. He has acknowledged that he isn't as fluent in the Navajo language as he'd like to be.

"It's too early to speculate the future of my service to the Navajo people. I have spent my career helping to solve serious problems facing our nation," Deschene said on Facebook last night.

So far, however, Deschene's name remains on the ballot. The supervisors for the Navajo Board of Election have refused to follow a decision from the Navajo Nation Supreme Court that said his name must be removed due to the language issue.

"The Navajo are citizens of the United States; there is a constitution that gives the principle that people have a right to vote, and their votes cannot be denied," Wallace Charley, the chairman of the election board, told KOB. "So based on that, the Navajo Board of Elections Supervisors will not back off on this principle. Whether that means going to jail – fine. We'll go to jail and see what comes out of this."

Two failed presidential candidates have asked the Supreme Court to hold the board in contempt for refusing to remove Deschene.

Russell Begaye, who came in third in the tribe's primary, will appear on the new ballots if Deschene is removed. Joe Shirley Jr., a former president who speaks Navajo fluently and who came in first, remains in the race.

Get the Story:
Navajo president vetoes bill to change fluency rule (The Arizona Republic 10/29)
Navajo Nation presidential race continues to grab attention (The Farmington Daily Times 10/29)
Navajo Nation voters head to the polls to determine leadership (The Farmington Daily Times 10/29)
Navajo President Vetoes Language-Fluency Changes (AP 10/28)
Navajo Election Board Commissioner: 'We'll go to jail' before removing Deschene's name from ballot (KOB 10/28)
Navajo Nation Changes Language Law (NPR 10/27)

Navajo Nation Supreme Court Decision:
Tsosie v. Deschene (October 23, 2014)

Navajo Nation Supreme Court Order:
Tsosie v. Deschene (October 22, 2014)

Earlier Navajo Nation Supreme Court Order:
Tsosie v. Deschene (September 26, 2014)

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