FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – A Navajo presidential candidate disqualified from the race after a court determined he could not speak the tribe’s language fluently is holding out hope officials on the nation’s largest Indian reservation will provide a way for him to remain on the ballot.
The Navajo Nation’s highest court dismissed an appeal from Chris Deschene on Wednesday, all but ending his bid for office. The move finalizes an order from a lower court that disqualified Deschene over his lack of Navajo fluency.
Tribal law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in the language, a defining part of Navajo culture. More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than half of the tribe’s members speak it.
Deschene declared Wednesday that his candidacy is not over. He asked supporters to back legislation on the Navajo Nation Council’s agenda this week that would make voters the sole decision-makers when it comes to determining a presidential candidate’s fluency.
The emergency legislation is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election but is subject to amendments. It’s unclear whether it could undo a tribal Supreme Court ruling.
Delegate Leonard Tsosie said he co-sponsored the bill because he’s concerned about disenfranchising voters who already have picked who they want as their next leader. He said the bill will bring some finality to the election.
“It’s just getting more chaotic by the day,” he said.
Delegate Dwight Witherspoon said he doesn’t believe the legislation fits the definition of an emergency, which allows bills to bypass committees and public comment.
“It’s done to try to benefit one individual,” he said.
The tribe’s presidential election is scheduled for Nov. 4. Levon Henry, an attorney for the Tribal Council and election officials, said it probably will be postponed.
However, absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. already have gone out, and early voting is underway.
Henry said election officials are awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a petition in a separate but related case seeking to enforce the disqualification order before making changes to the election. The order requires that election officials move up the third-place finisher from the primary election.
The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors is scheduled to meet Thursday. The supervisors have taken a stance on protecting the choice that Navajo voters made in the primary, something Deschene is counting on as an avenue to stay in the race.
The high court dismissed Deschene’s appeal for failing to include a copy of his disqualification order with his appeal and said it would not reconsider its decision.
Deschene has said he is proficient in the language. He refused to take a fluency test or answer questions in hearings. He said it was unfair that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.