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 on 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?”