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US tribe's high court orders presidential candidate in language fluency dispute off ballot

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A candidate for tribal president on the largest Native American reservation lost another round in a language fluency dispute Wednesday, all but ending his bid for office.

The Navajo Nation’s highest court dismissed an appeal from Chris Deschene, making a disqualification order from a lower court final and enforceable. The lower court had disqualified Deschene from seeking the tribe’s top elected post after he declined to demonstrate whether he is fluent in Navajo. Tribal law requires its presidential candidates to be fluent in the language, a defining part of Navajo culture.

Despite the long odds, Deschene said he is holding out hope that election officials and tribal lawmakers will provide a way for him to remain on the ballot.

“Certainly the campaign is committed to moving forward,” his spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the decision leaves the presidential election. The disqualification order requires that election officials move up the third-place finisher from the primary election.

However, absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. already have gone out, and early voting is under way.

Levon Henry, an attorney for the Tribal Council and election officials, has said the Nov. 4 election likely will be postponed. The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors is scheduled to meet about it Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation Council has a bill on its agenda this week to make voters the sole decision-makers when it comes to determining a presidential candidate’s fluency.

Henry did not immediately return a message Wednesday seeking comment on whether tribal lawmakers can undo a Supreme Court action.

The high court did not rule on the merits of Deschene’s appeal. Instead, the justices dismissed it over lack of jurisdiction because Deschene did not include a copy of his disqualification order with his notice of appeal.

They ruled out any possibility to have the appeal reconsidered.

“Any litigant who is serious about his case will ensure that all of the court’s jurisdictional requirements are satisfied,” the justices wrote.

Justin Jones, an attorney for one of the men who challenged Deschene, said Deschene confused voters by not admitting that he couldn’t speak fluent Navajo.

Deschene has said he is proficient in the language.

Deschene came in second to Shirley in the August primary, but his campaign was overshadowed by questions regarding his fluency in Navajo.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people speak Navajo than any other single Native American language. More than half of the Navajo Nation’s members speak the language.

Deschene refused to take a fluency test developed by the personnel in the tribe’s education department. He also declined to answer questions in a deposition or as a witness in the case against him. He said it was not right that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.

Richie Nez of the tribe’s Office of Hearings and Appeals said he had no choice but to disqualify Deschene after he failed to prove he could speak fluent Navajo.

Nez earlier dismissed the challenges as untimely. But the Supreme Court remanded the case to him after ruling that Nez must decide the challenges on the merits. It said the tribe’s language was too important to disregard as a qualification for the presidency.

The language is the foundation of Navajo culture and traditions, said to have been handed down by deities.