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A Navajo Speaker Says The Language Connects Her With Her Culture

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Supporters of Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene were unhappy last October when a court determined that he did not meet the language requirement.

Should the president of the Navajo Nation be required to speak fluent Navajo?

The Navajo Nation held a referendum on that question this week, and the majority voted no.

The vote was victory for supporters of a Navajo presidential candidate who was disqualified last fall because he didn't speak the language fluently. The next Navajo Nation election is in 2018.

Advocates say loosening the language requirement will enable the younger candidates, who are less likely to speak the language, to run for Navajo president. Opponents say the change will weaken the Navajo culture.

"Language and culture ties in together," says Jessica Dodson, 23, a Navajo who speaks the language fluently. "You cannot separate them."

Dodson tells NPR's Scott Simon that she believes the nation should keep the language requirement. She works at a senior center, where she says she speaks Navajo every day.

"I see a lot of our younger generation having cell phones, playing video games, watching TV," she says. "They're not really going out there into the community and showing themselves that they do care about saving our language and our culture."

Interview Highlights

On the connection between language and culture

When I go to a traditional ceremony, I observe, I participate, and I notice that there is about 90 percent [of our] elderly are in there because they were brought up with it. As years went on, their grandkids are not really interested in it due to no one advocating it, [no one] telling them, "Come in ... listen to these songs, it will brighten your spirits, it will refresh your mind and soul." No one is doing that. They just think it's some sort of ritual that they don't have to take part [in]. But it's who they are. They should carry it on, is what I strongly believe.

On why the Navajo president should speak the language

This Navajo Nation president represents us to the country, to different states. They have to know that this leader is representing not only himself but his people, the whole Navajo tribe, showing them, my people know their language, know their culture, know where they're coming from.

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