As I sit in front of my computer on Election Day, waiting for the results of senate races across the country, I can’t help but think about one race that will not be decided today. The Navajo Nation Presidential election has been postponed after candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified from the election for not being a sufficiently fluent speaker of the Diné (Navajo) language. Whatever the outcome of the rest of today’s races, one thing is clear: it’s time for Congress to get serious about the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act (and its companion in the House).
Representing over 330,000 people and whose reservation encompasses large parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation, has spent the last two months wrestling with the relationship between language, government, and identity. Deschene came in second in the general primary winning 19 percent of the vote in a field of 17 candidates. Shortly thereafter, two of Deschene’s challengers petitioned to have him disqualified claiming he is not sufficiently fluent in Navajo to meet the legal language proficiency requirement. It has been a flurry of legal activity ever since with appeals that went all the way up to the Navajo Supreme Court and late-night Council sessions to draft new legislation to amend the requirement.
The question on everybody’s lips seems to be “would I vote for a Navajo President who doesn’t speak Navajo?”
Navajo law currently has language proficiency requirements for several elected positions, including President and Vice President. Today, only 30 percent of first graders on the reservation speak Diné as a first language, compared with 90 percent in 1968. Despite vigorous revitalization efforts such as immersion language schools and Navajo Star Wars, the language is on the decline. What does this mean for future generations of Navajo leaders?
The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act will establish a grant program through the Department of Education to support immersion programs from preschool through the postsecondary level. Schools serving large numbers of Native Americans are some of the most vulnerable to budget cuts. This new program would create dedicated funds for native language immersion–something many schools cannot afford on their own.
This crisis of endangered languages is not restricted to Diné, or even to the United Sates; the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, in concert with National Geographic, has identified at least 2,432 endangered indigenous languages distributed globally across 18 hotspots. These are languages that are no longer taught to children, and can be expected to die out within the next two generations. Compared to them, Diné is relatively well off.
To be sure, there are a variety of private, nonprofit, and government programs where indigenous groups can seek funding for initiatives including language revitalization. And ok, languages have been evolving and dying out for as long as there have been languages–Etruscan anyone? But here’s the rub: these people do not want to lose their language. Diné is disappearing not because it simply stopped being useful to the community, but because the US government prohibited its use. Native children were forced to attend English-language schools and undergo programs of cultural assimilation designed to “kill the Indian in [them].” It only seems right for the Department of Education to fund efforts to redress this wrong.
While it is up to the individual Indian communities to decide how much importance to give their language, we can make it easier for the people who choose revitalization to fund it. Tribal members make up less than two percent of the American population; we ninety-eight percent can use our power of numbers to support passing the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act.
I will likely never have to vote for someone who does not speak my language, and the Navajo people should not have to either.
Stephanie is first year MPA-PNP student. She brought her linguistics background to Wagner to work on language policy and indigenous rights. Tweet her at @wingedrecliner. She probably won’t tweet back.