PHOENIX (Reuters) - Russell Begaye beat the former two-time president of the Navajo Nation on Tuesday to become leader of the largest Native American tribe in an election that was delayed by questions over one candidate’s ability to speak Navajo.
Unofficial results showed Begaye, who has served on the Navajo Nation Council for four years, had won with two thirds of the vote, Nation spokesman Jared Touchin said.
“I think the people are really wanting to see something take place and really a significant change that’s tangible,” Begaye told reporters in Window Rock, Arizona on Tuesday night, in footage from local television station KOB-TV.
“And that is what we’re going to be doing.”
The vote was scheduled for November but was delayed after finalist Chris Deschene was disqualified for refusing to prove his fluency in Navajo.
Two unsuccessful presidential hopefuls had filed grievances, claiming that Deschene had lied about his fluency. The tribe requires all presidential candidates be fluent in Navajo, which U.S. Census estimates show is spoken by fewer and fewer people.
Begaye came third in a crowded primary election last August and had not advanced to the general election before the removal of Deschene, who came in second to ex-president Joe Shirley Jr.
Jonathan Nez, a Navajo county lawmaker, will serve as Begaye’s vice president.
Representatives for the Shirley campaign could not be immediately reached for comment, but the Navajo Times newspaper reported that Shirley told supporters on Tuesday night: “It’s not what we expected but you know all along we wanted for the people to speak. They have and the numbers are what they are.”
The Navajo Nation, which has more than 300,000 tribal members, covers parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico totaling 27,425 square miles (71,030 square km).
Reporting by David Schwartz; Writing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Louise Ireland