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2015-2016 Issue II Arts & Culture

Mother Tongue: The Navajo Nation Revives Diné

Creosote, cholla, and palo-verde trees claim the American Southwest. A handful of interstates cut through horizons of sprawling, wispy vegetation. T’sah (sagebrush), K’ish (alder), and Tsédédééh (four o’clocks) bask in the desert sun. The eternal skyline is sporadically interrupted by jagged mountains of magma-hardened rock that shift from violet to russet-gold at sunset. This is the beautiful nizhóní, the heartland of the Navajo Nation: the place where Tiffany Lee, Associate Director of Navajo Studies at the University of New Mexico, grew up surrounded by the sounds of Diné, the language of the Navajo.

“To my mother and all of my aunts and uncles, Navajo was their first and only language,” she told The Politic.

Though the language was integral to her home, culture, and identity, Lee wasn’t raised fluent. She is not unique. Even the President of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, like Lee, is not a native Diné speaker. Because so many Navajo are not fluent, in July 2015, the Navajo Nation voted to loosen the language requirements for its top leaders.

The decision to drop the fluency requirement was controversial. Outsiders invariably interpreted the decision as a manifestation of Native American assimilation. The verdict was met with opposition from within the Navajo Nation too. The Navajo government operates predominantly in English, but elders who favor Navajo tradition held that the president ought to be fluent in Diné in order to better communicate with the council and courts.

However, the bulk of the Navajo constituency – especially Navajo youth – do not see the verdict as evidence of Diné’s diminished significance. Nor do they see it as the Americanization of Navajo people. Rather, they attest that the policy enables them to elect a leader who better represents the contemporary Navajo tribe: a modernized, largely non-fluent demographic.

According to a 2011 American Community Survey, of the 370,000 Navajo in the United States, only about 169,000 speak Diné. Reed Bobroff ’16, a self-taught Diné speaker, explained that the fluency requirement for the Navajo President barred qualified representatives from running.

“Having a fluency requirement in place can leave out a large constituency and exclude qualified leaders…[non-Diné speakers] shouldn’t be discriminated against,” Bobroff told The Politic. But, he added, “Language acquisition is something that everyone should strive for.”

The current Navajo president is striving to learn the language. President Begaye, a UCLA graduate, is not an aloof Americanized leader. His lack of fluency does not mean that he devalues Diné. Rather, he is an emblem of a non-fluent generation, and his efforts to attain fluency are encouraging other young Navajo to do the same.

Bobroff added that the decision is an inclusive effort to acknowledge the complex history that created generational language divides among the Navajo. The decline in native Diné speakers is a result of the Navajo people’s complex history of language discrimination.

For example, Lee’s grandmother was one of many Navajo children subjected to the discriminatory practices of boarding schools established throughout the Southwest in the early 1900s. These schools would often chastise pupils for using Navajo terms or mannerisms in favor of more American habits, ostensibly to avoid discrimination later on in life. The Navajo of this generation, subjected to such pressures, would return to their communities with improved English and the notion that speaking English alone was the path to prosperity.

“They changed our people’s mindset about their own language and being successful in America,” Lee said.  

Other public policies accelerated the numerical decline of Diné speakers. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Bilingual Act of 1968 provided funding for non-native English speaking students and launched programs that would accelerate English acquisition. A major effect of these efforts was a great cultural loss for the Navajo. Advocacy groups such as the AIM (American Indian Movement) joined in the Civil Rights Movement a few years later, fighting to combat the negative results of such legislation.

The Navajo Nation officially reacted to the decline of Diné in 1984, when the Navajo Council introduced its own legislation requiring that Navajo instruction be available and comprehensive at all primary schools on the reservation.

After six years, Congress followed suit, passing the Native American Languages Act of 1990. This bill was the first to establish the preservation, protection, and promotion of the “rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American language.” These rights were not to be “restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs.”

The legislation, while a victory for the rights of Native Diné speakers, still prompted a new wave of English-only campaigns, such as Arizona’s English for the Children campaign (led by mostly white Arizonans), that supported the anti-bilingual Proposition 203 as late as 2001.

The Navajo nation continued to face English-only pressures, especially in the workplace. After finding jobs on the outer reaches of the reservation or in towns and cities on its periphery, urbanized Navajo continued to face discrimination.  Such pressures compelled them to raise their children to speak English as their first language.

Despite legislation like the Native American Languages Act, areas of inequality remain ingrained in federal policy, with enduring effects on the Nation. Discrimination, felt over decades from generation to generation, coupled with scarce resources for learning Diné in urban settings and schools, created the tremendous generational gaps in fluency that exist in the Navajo community today.

Despite the current divides in Diné fluency, both Lee and Shelly Lowe, executive director of Harvard’s Native American Program, are optimistic about the future of Diné and Navajo revitalization efforts.

“Modernization and strong Navajo identity are not mutually exclusive,” Lowe told The Politic.

Both Lee and Lowe have observed overwhelmingly positive trends in Navajo cultural and linguistic reclamation, and identify further preservation and expansion of Diné as a communal responsibility.

“Attitudes do change over time. Some youths may have been raised at a distance but over time as they matured, many seem to have returned to a sense of pride and desire for connection with their Navajo identities,” Lee told The Politic.  

The tribe has developed numerous Diné immersion programs to supplement Navajo studies at primary schools throughout the reservation, including Dream Diné, Native American Community Academy (NACA) and Diné College, a tribal community college that offers an associate’s degree in Navajo.  

Grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs currently fund Navajo language programs – including testing and curricula – in all 32 schools on the reservation. Because immersion programs tend to target elementary school students on the reservation, some people have called for outreach geared towards young adults just outside the reservation. The urban generation now finishing high school, attending college, or starting their own families has had fewer opportunities to rediscover Diné. The pressure is high today because eighty percent of self-identified Navajo live off of the Navajo Nation Reservation.

Bobroff told The Politic, “Most [Navajo youth] are now urban…we have more people living in cities than on reservations.”

Irrevocably intertwined with tribal values and the Navajo way of life, Diné follows few patterns. The complex design of the language is what made the heroic Navajo Code Talkers of World War II so successful – the Japanese military was unable to decipher Diné. For Navajo who take the initiative to rediscover Diné, self-study can be a similarly arduous task.

A recent Yale graduate from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dineé Dorame ’15, undertook the challenge. While at Yale, she decided to build on her lackluster high school Diné program. Having already grappled with the difficulties of learning the complex language, she designed her own Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) program in Diné. By Skyping a professor at the University of New Mexico (UNM) from her dorm room and practicing with another Navajo student, Dorame was able to engage with implicit cultural cues, values, and ideals—necessary because, as she said, “Our language is embedded in these things.”

Dorame sees her desire to become fluent and reconnect with her Navajo identity reflected in many younger Navajo. She warns against mislabeling her Navajo peers and acquaintances as disinterested in their heritage merely for “not having the resources or opportunity to learn the language when [they] were so willing to do so.”

Self-taught Navajo speakers such as Dorame and Bobroff commend the Nation’s current language revitalization programs and suggest expanding the programs to more Southwestern cities and towns. They also suggested that more of these initiatives should target middle and high school students wanting to strengthen their sense of identity through language acquisition, just as they did while learning Diné at Yale.

“If you understand the language of your people it gives you access to prayer and ceremony in a way that falls through the cracks with translation,” Bobroff explained.

Their enthusiasm reflects President Begaye’s passion to become fluent. The push towards fluency among the Navajo is not diminishing, but increasing – a clear sign that Diné is not going anywhere, but will remain vital to the Navajo identity and way of life.