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AZ elections officials grapple with new Native American language rule

By Uriel J. Garcia
Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Coconino County election officials have provided translators at the polls for Navajo speakers. They have done the same for Hopi voters.

But Yuma has them stumped.

“There has never been a request for (Yuma),” said Coconino County Elections Administrator Patty Hansen. “So now we’re trying to find someone who can speak that language.”

Coconino was one of three Arizona counties that were told by the federal government in October that they would have to add voting assistance in the obscure language, which previously had been required only of Yuma County.

Those four were among 248 counties in 25 states whose populations require election assistance in other languages, according to the Census Bureau. Under the Voting Rights Act, assistance can be required in jurisdictions where a minority with poor English skills makes up 5 percent of the voting-age population and has literacy levels below the national average.

But in Arizona, Yuma County officials said they have never received call for assistance in the language, although they claim they are ready if anyone asks.

Of the other two counties that received notice this fall, Yavapai said it has since been told by the Justice Department that it does not need to provide Yuma assistance, and Mohave officials said local tribal leaders have told them they won’t need the help.

Coconino, however, is still on the hook. And that’s proving to be a challenge.

“I can’t tell you exactly how many speakers of Yuma there are now, but certainly not too many. I’d guess under 100,” said Pam Munro, a linguistic professor at University of California, Los Angeles.

Munro said it would be hard to find Yuma speakers, but there are some.

Barbara Levy is one of them.

Levy is a fluent Yuma speaker who lives on the Fort Yuma Indian reservation. She said the Yuma that Munro refers to is actually a dialect of the larger Yuman language, which also includes Havasupai, Hualapai and Cocopah dialects.

Levy said a tribe member who speaks a Yuman dialect might be able to assist voters in those counties required to provide Yuma elections assistance. But variations in the dialects could make that difficult, she said.

Yavapai County officials said they recently received notice from the Justice Department that the county would not have to provide voting assistance in any Yuman dialect. Jimmie Jo Hlavin, the county’s election programmer, said the federal government realized that the Yuman-speaking Hualapai tribe owns land in the county, but no one lives on it.

“But if individuals would happen to move there we would have to provide assistance,” Hlavin said.

Mohave County has not heard otherwise from the federal government, so it has reached out to the three Native American tribes in the county for help. So far, only the Kaibab tribe has responded.

“We made ourselves available,” said Betty Vernon, the Mohave County deputy elections director. “But they (tribal officials) sort of chuckled when we mentioned to them the Yuman language.”

Vernon said that not only had the Kaibab leaders not heard of Yuman, they told the county the tribe did not need any language assistance.

Coconino County officials have scheduled a Dec. 16 meeting with Havasupai tribe leaders to talk about the new requirement, said Alta Edison, the county’s elections outreach coordinator.

“We want to come down (to the reservation) and talk about this new requirement from the Department of Justice and see what we get,” Edison said.

Because Native American languages are not written languages, counties have used oral translators to help voters in past elections. Hansen said that will probably be the case if Coconino County winds up providing Yuma assistance in the future.

But that has not been the case in Yuma County, where most of the state’s Yuma speakers live. Election officials there are required to provide translators for Yuma and Cocopah, but the tribes have told the county they do not need any help.

Despite the challenges, the Native American language requirements released this year are actually lighter than they were 10 years ago, when the last list was released.

In 2000, the government required Apache language assistance in Apache, Graham, Gila, Navajo and Pinal counties. It is no longer required.

Navajo County was also required to provide Pueblo language assistance, which has since been dropped. This year, the government added Hopi language assistance to the county’s requirements.

Graham County Elections Director Judy Dickerson said that even though officials there are no longer required to provide assistance to Apache speakers, they are ready to do so if needed.

“We will keep on having (Apache) translators at the polls for anyone who needs them,” Dickerson said.

Levy said she is glad the federal government has finally paid attention to the tribes’ needs.

“Our language hasn’t died yet,” Levy said. “But we have very little to preserve (of it).”

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