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Navajos face leadership crisis as lawmakers take office, minus a new president

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FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. » Crisp suits. A roaring band. Beaming first-term lawmakers. The inauguration held here this week for the newest government of the Navajo Nation held the trappings of a typical passage of power.

Conspicuously absent, however, was one key player: a new president.

The Navajo Nation, a semiautonomous sovereign state that suffers from chronic poverty and unemployment, is now facing what many are calling its greatest political challenge in a generation: a power vacuum caused in part by a requirement that its president be fluent in the Navajo language, which is prized as a cultural legacy and for its vital role in transmitting military secrets during World War II.

One candidate heading into the November election, Chris Deschene, whom many tribe members thought could successfully lead the Navajo, was disqualified for his lack of fluency, prompting a fight that led the tribe to postpone its 2014 presidential election not once, but twice.

Although the most recent president, Ben Shelly, was sworn in at a brief, private ceremony Tuesday, he lost his re-election bid and will serve only temporarily until the tribe resolves its leadership crisis.

"It’s shaken the very foundation of Navajo government," said Moroni Benally, a public policy scholar who ran unsuccessfully for Navajo president last year. Without a strong executive, he said, "How can we move forward?"

The question hung over the inauguration Tuesday, held in a high school basketball arena here. A traditional healer took the stage, urging reconciliation after months of division over who should be allowed to run for executive office.

"Our president and our leaders, let’s stand behind them," he said in Dini, the Navajo language. "In beauty we walk," he continued, repeating the phrase three more times.

But tribe members in the stands said the talk did little to salve their wounds. In October, the presidential election had pitted Joe Shirley Jr., 67, a former two-term president known for overhauling the Navajo Legislature, against Deschene, 43, a former Arizona state representative with a guy-next-door demeanor, a savvy social media campaign and an inclusive definition of the Navajo identity.

For many members exhausted by years of seemingly intractable poverty, Deschene seemed like a way forward.

Then, days before the election, Deschene was disqualified, after a lawsuit called his Dini fluency into question. The disqualification unleashed a tit-for-tat legal battle that consumed the three branches of the tribal government, with the Legislature eventually voting to nullify the primary and start over.

Navajo voters began to tire of the soap opera.

"It’s a mess," Shirley said in a telephone interview. He did not attend the inauguration, instead tending to business in his hometown, Chinle.

The nullification was quickly challenged in tribal court, and it remains unclear when an election will be held, who will run, and whether the fluency requirement will remain.

The absence of a new president leaves in place Shelly, 67, who was faulted by voters for, among other things, attending a Washington Redskins game, where he sat alongside the team’s owner, Dan Snyder. (Many Native Americans consider the team’s name offensive.)

The Navajo Nation, comprising some 300,000 members, has the largest reservation in the United States, a vast region of towering red rocks and scrubby yellow plains that is roughly the size of West Virginia. It is run by a three-branch government that is comparable to a state body, with notable exceptions: The tribe does not have a constitution and is instead guided by a set of codes and a document outlining traditional values.

Central government is not a Navajo concept, but was instead imposed on the tribe by the federal government in the 1920s. While the tribe has had some form of central governing body since 1922, the existing system was put in place in 1990, after a corruption scandal led to deadly riots and then democratic reforms. Today, the president manages most of a $500 million budget and acts as a diplomat to states, other tribes and the federal government, serving a term of four years.

In recent weeks, supporters of Deschene, angered that their ballots in the primary had been discounted, have begun to organize voter’s rights groups across the reservation, with meetings drawing wall-to-wall crowds, and elders reportedly crying in their seats. Protesters have marched at least six times outside the legislative chamber, calling for the removal of a judge who ruled on Deschene’s disqualification.

To protest the election’s delay, Rebecca Nave Cling, 47, has taken to wearing the same shirt every day, featuring the face of Annie Dodge Wauneka, a Navajo lawmaker celebrated for an unflagging can-do spirit.

"The people are hurt," said Cling, a substitute teacher. "We have no faith in our democracy."

And across the reservation, the uproar has given Deschene — with his ponytail, earrings and hefty leather wrist cuff — a celebrity aura not normally associated with Navajo officials. At the inauguration Tuesday, after 24 legislators and various board members were inducted, Deschene was mobbed by cellphone-wielding teenagers. "They believe their votes should count," he said. "No one respected their voice."

As the ceremony ended, women wearing headscarves and traditional turquoise barrettes mingled with towering men in cowboy hats. Amid a screaming jazz band and camera flashes, Kauy Bahe, 14, and his uncle, Kellen Joe Bahe, 32, sat in the stadium seats, wearing matching expressions of disappointment.

They had come to watch a family friend take office. "We want change," said Kauy, an eighth-grader and aspiring app developer. "But our government is not giving us change."

Bahe jumped in. "We’re happy for our friend, but we should be inaugurating a president."

Julie Turkewitz, New York Times

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