Navajo language referendum passes in special election
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK - Navajo voters decided on Tuesday that it should be the Navajo people and not the Navajo courts who should decide whether a candidate running for tribal president or vice president is fluent in Navajo.
A referendum to change existing tribal laws on that subject passed Tuesday by a vote of 13,017 to 11,778, according to the unofficial count done by the Navajo Election Administration. That’s a difference of about five percentage points.
As expected, turnout for the election was low with only 21 percent of the registered voters participating in the election.
The election count, which was done in the auditorium at the Navajo Nation Museum, showed the first chapter votes coming in just three minutes after the polls closed. The tallies from the first seven chapters put the yes vote ahead but then about 7:05 p.m., the nays took the lead but that lasted only for about seven minutes as the yes vote took the lead again after 23 chapters and kept it to the end.
Thomas Benallie, one of the 100 or so people who showed up to watch the count, said the decision by the Navajo voters was a good one because it gives more power to the Navajo voters and gives them a greater say in the running of their government.
“I don’t think that the Navajo people will elect someone with no knowledge of Navajo culture or the Navajo language, but passage (of the referendum) will allow more people to run for tribal president in the future.”
Voter rights groups on the reservation spent a lot of time in the days before the election trying to explain what the new law would and would not do and clear up any misunderstanding that the Navajo voters may have had. One of these was that passage of the referendum would mean that future tribal leaders would not need to know anything about the Navajo language or culture.
The requirement that candidates know both English and Navajo will still be on the books and it will now be up to the Navajo voters, and not the tribal courts, to decide whether the candidate is fluent enough in Navajo to properly represent the Navajo Nation.