Diné bizaadísh dinitsʼaʼ? Diné bizaad doo shił bééhózin da From a Non-Navajo Speaker

Chris Deschene was disqualified from the 2014 Navajo Nation presidential election because he did not meet the Navajo language fluency requirement.

I was a bit frustrated with the 2014 Navajo Nation elections in regards to Chris Deschene being disqualified for not being a fluent speaker of the Navajo language. He has the educational qualifications to lead the nation. However, language fluency is the most important qualification and that’s what he lacks. About a year has passed and I have learned that language fluency is very important, especially when one is being considered to lead a tribal nation. You can’t lead if you’re not able to hear all the voices you represent.

At first, I was opposed to the idea that you have to be fluent, since I’m not a fluent speaker myself. Now, I understand that learning the Navajo language should be a priority since it’s a part of my identity. I always stress that knowing who you are and where you come from is the most important characteristic in any individual’s life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of chances to pick up the language considering my entire family (maternal and paternal) speak it fluently. But I remember what one of my oldest cousins would say, “Sometimes learning a language is different from just picking it up naturally.”

By then I started to see all sides of the Navajo language spectrum.

In my earliest childhood memories I think of my paternal grandparents and how they only spoke Navajo.

I remember when my Nali Asdzaan would gesture for me to get things for her and if I picked up the wrong item, she would only laugh. During the conversations between my father and Nali, while traveling to town, I would listen to the sound in their voices, which was the only way I could tell if they were joking or talking about a serious matter. That’s basically how I observed the language, by the sound of the speaker.

Taking my Navajo language 101 class with Professor Littleben at Diné College changed my outlook on wanting to learn. I took Navajo language in my high school years, but at the tribal college learning and understanding the language is one of the foundational principles of Sa’ah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozhoo.

It is not only a part of the tribal college philosophy, but also a way to live in harmony and balance. This traditional living concept is called Hozho.

Understanding these principles made me aware of the situation during the Navajo Nation presidential elections with the candidate Chris Deschene. When his language fluency had come into question, it sparked a controversy between the fluent speakers and non-fluent speakers.

Non-fluent speakers were behind Deschene and mainly were the younger generation who wanted change within the Navajo government. Once Deschene was disqualified, the message I took from that was how much language is always going to remain an important factor.

With any tribal nation, the challenge of keeping languages alive is still current. With that being said, I encourage the non-speakers of their Native tongue to try and make it a priority to learn. Without the language, we are not balanced within ourselves and are not able to keep alive our identities as Native peoples.

Shaina Nez is from Lukachukai in the Navajo Nation and a graduate of Diné College and Fort Lewis College.

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