Preserving Navajo

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Dec 23 15:11:13 UTC 2006

Vanishing identity?

By Erny Zah The Daily Times/Farmington Daily Times
Article Launched:12/17/2006 12:00:00 AM MST

FARMINGTON Language is life, as life is language. For the Dine, or the
Navajo people, the language is symbolic of a lifestyle that has existed
for generations. Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. expressed to the world
the importance of Navajo language during a June speech delivered to the
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The
speech was in Paris. "For one to truly be Dine, one must speak the
language of the Dine. Only in this way will one understand the songs, the
prayers and ceremonies that have been passed down orally through countless
generations of our people,"  he said. So when the 2006 Data Trends Summary
for Annual Health Survey revealed that only 5 percent of Navajo
school-aged children could speak Navajo fluently, tribal leaders and
educators re-energized their effort, to find a way to keep and revitalize
their language. They consider it the basis of Navajo identity.

Early Dine beliefs

Like other languages throughout the world, the Navajo language has its
roots in mythology. It was considered by the early Navajo to be a gift
from the celestial beings that formerly lived among the Navajo people.
"The Holy People gave it us," said Darrell Tso, a Navajo who is a student
advisor at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He is originally
from Tuba City, Ariz. The Holy People gave Navajo people the language, and
the story of how they gave the language to the people is rooted in the
four cardinal directions, said Harry Walters, director of the Ned Hatathli
Museum and Navajo culture instructor at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz. In
the beginning, there was a being whose Navajo name translates into "one
who exists in the midst of space," Walters said, who explained how words
played a role in early Navajo beliefs about creation. This early being
spoke a white shell word and there was light. Then he spoke a turquoise
word and there was earth. Then an abalone word created water and a black
jet word created air. "Those four elements make up everything," he said.

Those words are representative of the four directions, which are
representative of the stages of human development. They also represent the
stones from the cardinal directions that are a part of Navajo prayers,
songs and ceremonies, he said. "That's where the language started.
Everybody spoke the first language,"  he said. By everyone, he said, he
means that according to the beliefs, everything in Navajo creation from
animals, insects, birds and supernatural beings spoke the original Navajo
tongue. "They all spoke the same language," and during that time the Holy
People still were living with the original Navajo people, he said. "Then
came the time when the Holy People left. They speak the original first
language. We started speaking a second language, which was still based on
the old one," Walters said.

The Holy People, equivalent to the Holy Ghost in Christianity, gave the
Navajo people the language to use to help them overcome adversities the
Dine faced, both past and present, Tso said. During the Shiprock Fair in
October, Tso participated in the Nightway (Yei' Bi' Chei) ceremony by
singing in a hogan, where most of the songs and prayers are performed. He
described that as the ceremony continued toward its completion, the songs
relayed stories in an older dialect of Navajo. "The songs are pretty much
an account of our people and the Holy People,"  he said. The songs speak
about journeys Dine people have made through sacred places, and they
reveal the names and locations of these places.

"If you speak the (Navajo) language, those songs will literally take you
on a journey," he said. In addition to learning some of the sacred areas
and sacred names of those areas, Tso says, Dine Bizaad is the line of
communication to the Gods of traditional Navajo beliefs. "Talking God and
House God, it was their songs that were given to us.  That's their line of
communications. In order to reap the benefits (of prayers and songs), you
have to understand that you have to communicate with them," he said. Since
some of the Navajo words can't translate into English or lose their
meaning when converted to the European tongue, Tso said, praying to those
Gods in English might not reap the same benefits to the Navajo people as
it would if the prayers were said in Navajo.

Mixed teaching styles

Many people might point to influences from a larger English-speaking
society as one of the reasons why Navajo young people aren't speaking
their native tongue. Some of the more evident influences are television,
music, video games and other media forms that use primarily English as a
form of communication. However, a larger influence could be the learning
pattern expected in English-speaking societies versus traditional Navajo
society, Tso said. In the American school system, pupils are expected to
form an opinion, verbally respond when spoken to, and other communication
patterns that involve an open dialogue. "You have to ask questions. You
have to use that word why,' " he said. But in Navajo, he said, asking
questions is not valued.

"It means you're not a good learner. You're not being attentive to what's
being said," he added. As a result, Navajo elders may seem like they are
impatient with teaching Navajo language. Ramona Yazzie, 26, said she feels
embarrassed by some of the words that are said to her because she doesn't
speak fluent Navajo. "You don't know?" she said some family members ask
her. "Not being able to speak Navajo, for me it's embarrassing because I
should know more." She said speaking with a reporter during an Elementary
Navajo Language class at San Juan College. The embarrassment Yazzie feels
may be a sign of the American teaching style influences, because, Tso
says, when a Navajo parent or grandparent instructs the younger people in
a perceived harsh manner, the elders are teaching them how to take that
criticism to make their situation better. "From a young age, if you're not
used to the older people being straight and direct, it doesn't prepare you
to handle criticism," he said, adding that he sees more and more young
people wanting to respond with words rather than contemplate about what
the elders say.

The Role of Home in Learning Navajo

Though differences from Navajo and American teaching methods may be
cumbersome to teaching Navajo language, one way to avoid the conflict is
teaching Navajo within the family. "Children learn languages best when
they learn in the home," said Sherman Wilcox, chair of the linguistics
department at the University of New Mexico. "It's always best to learn a
language at home rather than at school." Another reason why it's important
for children to be taught Navajo or other languages, Wilcox says, is the
"critical learning age" for children. The "critical learning age" is the
optimum age for people to learn any language. The age is usually from
birth to puberty, or about 10 to 12 years of age. "There is a certain
plasticity in the brain we have before the end of the critical period,"
Wilcox said, adding that the older a person ages, the more difficult it is
to learn a second language.

"It's very difficult for (adults). Children don't even have to try. They
don't have to be taught the language, they absorb it," he says. Teaching
Navajo during childhood also has the benefits Tso mentioned in regard to
understanding the lessons offered in Navajo, Walters said. "If you are
taught in Navajo, you learn to comprehend what the meaning of the teaching
is, the observation. If you don't have that, then it will be hard to
comprehend (Navajo lessons). It is important that we teach our young
children Navajo," he said.

Navajo Immersion

In efforts to teach Navajo to younger children, Ojo Amarillo Elementary
School in Upper Fruitland offers a Navajo immersion class to its students.
The classes began nine years ago and are taught by Roz Ulibarri. As each
class begins, in unison, the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in
Navajo. Then some of the classes review the Navajo alphabet, which has 32
consonants, 10 that aren't in the English alphabet. When the class
finishes its routine, students work on assignments from Roz. One of the
assignments for the fifth-grade immersion class was a handmade workbook
entitled "Bits'aa doo Hosel," which means how I came to be. "It's about me
and relatives," said Bernadette Toledo, 11.

Her workbook, written in Navajo, explained her Navajo clans, her parents
and grandparent's clans, as well as what her relatives like to do. Hand
drawn figures from various colored crayons represented herself and her
family. "I don't think this is a bilingual class," Roz said, adding that
she tries to speak only Navajo to the students. "The comprehension is
there. The usage is not," she said. So when it comes to fluent students,
Roz says, there is very small percentage of students who can speak Navajo.
"Each year, there are not more than 10 (students) in kindergarten through
sixth grade, that understand, respond and talk in Navajo," she said,
adding that this school year she has 157 students.

In one fifth-grade immersion class, there were three students who said
they were fluent in Navajo. Adam Natanabah, 10, said his grandmother
taught him how to speak Navajo, adding that the class is easy for him. In
addition, he says he feels different from his other classmates because
he's "the only one that can speak Navajo."

Linguistically Speaking

The University of New Mexico has offered Navajo language classes for 35
years, but Wilcox doesn't know of any university that has a linguistics
department devoted to the Navajo language and studying it in-depth.
Hopefully that will change, he said. In the upcoming 2007 session of the
New Mexico Legislature, Wilcox said, a bill will be introduced that would
provide funding for a Navajo linguistics department at UNM. "In a
linguistic setting, we'll have faculty and students working together,
documenting (Navajo language use), where it's used, not being used. That
kind of education is what's necessary for education projects,"  he said.
He compared the potential of creating new Navajo language curriculum to
that of other languages like Spanish, Italian and other more studied

"Those languages are so highly studied; we don't have that situation for
Navajo. In order to build good teaching curricula, you need both people
(language teachers and linguists) interested in the language," he said.
But whether UNM obtains funding to create a Navajo linguistics department,
Lorraine Begay Manavi, a Navajo language instructor at San Juan College,
said the basic necessity of teaching Navajo is patience. "(We need) to be
patient with Navajo learners and not always be rushing them into
conversations," she said.

The Future

With 95 percent of Navajo school-age children not being able to fluently
speak Navajo and with the language serving as the basis of all cultural
identity the Navajo people have, the future of the Navajo people in regard
to language and culture is uncertain, observers say. "As a teacher, when I
talk to students in the same way my grandfather talked to me, they don't
understand," Walters said. "It's like I'm talking about King Arthur or
Peter Pan. What we're talking about (in culture) is not real. It's not
relevant to our life today. They can't make that correlation." The
societal pressures of work and earning a living are keeping parents and
grandparents from passing on Navajo to their young ones, he said.
Nonetheless, as the Navajo people look ahead, the possibility of losing
the language sticks in the minds of young people, as well. Candace Toledo,
21, of Kirtland, understands Navajo but doesn't speak it.  She started
shedding tears when she began to think of the possibility of losing Navajo
as a language.

"It's a scary thought," she said as she wiped away her teardrops. "It's a
very scary thought to think that we're not going to speak Navajo. Kids
aren't encouraged to learn because all we do is get criticized and older
adults don't know it hurts." Much is at stake, Tso said. "It's a loss of
scared knowledge, that source of life. Once we lose that language, we lose
a source to a way of life," he said.


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