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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Language important in Navajo elections

    The upcoming Navajo presidential election is getting heightened media attention, not only because of its significance for Navajo leadership, but also because of its potential cultural implications.

    Among the 11 requirements to seek the Navajo presidency, candidates must be official members of the Navajo Nation, be able to read and write in English and be fluent in the Navajo language. The last provision became a topic of hot debate when, weeks after the August Navajo primary, two political opponents challenged the Navajo fluency of presidential candidate Chris Deschene.

    Deschene meets the blood quota to be considered a Navajo citizen, was born and raised on Navajo land and has been a prominent figure in his community. But courts ruled him ineligible for the presidency after it was determined he was not fluent in Navajo.

    Deschene’s plight represents a predicament arising with the spread of linguistic imperialism and electronic translation technologies.

    Fewer people are learning less common languages. As languages decline, cultures imparted through them are slowly being lost. Sheilah E. Nicholas from the University of Arizona Department of American Indian Studies stated that, generally speaking, “[language] becomes a referent for the oral traditions of a society. Oral tradition encompasses the myriad of language forms — song words and phrases, ritual language, prayer, teachings, including symbolism and everyday language, et cetera.”

    Nicholas spoke about how language enculturates individuals, how it frames their cultural awareness, their history, ethics and values. It is a cultural stamp. While baseline communication is almost always possible in our age, the cultural aspects transmitted through a language are lost with its death.

    Nicholas also noted, with respect to how language operates in any community, “[the] role of language proficiency, the ability to understand and speak, is at the essence of responsibility, preparation and being part of a group. It is a qualification that implicates trust, confidence and respect in maintaining the cultural and political integrity of the group.”

    Learning foreign languages allows people to delve into other cultures. Increasingly, however, U.S. students are interpreting the prominence of English worldwide and improving translation software as a signal that it is no longer necessary to study foreign languages.

    That logic only functions well enough to get a person through a business meeting or an online, translated text. As Nicholas said, speaking less commonly spoken languages is a sign of respect. By gaining fluency in a language, one dedicates copious amounts of time to gain a skill that allows them to partake in the culture in a way that is impossible without that form of communication. Fully integrated members in a community are able to speak with one another in a natural way, which engenders mutual understanding, trust and respect.

    Deschene is certainly a well-qualified presidential candidate. He served in the Marine Corps, has a law degree and has amassed large popular support. The issue, however, is larger than one candidate. According to NPR, 90 percent of Navajo first graders were fluent in Navajo 50 years ago. Today, that number has dropped to 30 percent.

    Early voting has already begun in the Navajo Nation, and there is no word about what is to be done with ballots that support Deschene. There is no protocol for what should happen if Deschene wins the majority, since his name is still on the ballot. There is certainly ample reason for the Navajo Nation to elect him; there are issues at stake besides language and culture, and Deschene may very well be the best candidate to address them.

    But the fact remains that Deschene is not fluent in the language of the nation he wishes to lead, and that should give all of us pause. If Deschene still wins a majority, regardless of fluency, it will mark an important shift in the value placed on language.


    Julianna Renzi is a sophomore studying environmental science and economics. Follow her on Twitter.

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