Revitalizing Native Cultures
To traditional Navajos, specific places in the landscape are sacred To traditional Navajos, specific places in the
landscape are sacred

Navajo Language & Culture

The Navajo are the second largest tribe in the U.S. and they have the largest reservation stretching across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with over 25,000 square miles. They were also among the largest group of Indians to migrate to Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s.

Of all the major tribes, the Navajo language seems to be the most robust. According to the U.S. Census, almost 70 percent of Navajos speak their tribal language in the home, and 25 per cent do not know English very well. For many Navajo, English has been a second language. In contrast, only 30 percent of Native Americans as a whole speak their own tribal language in the home. For the Cherokee and the Chippewa, less than 10 percent speak the native language in the home.

Urban Indian mothers like Pricilla Rodriguez find it hard to teach a desert language like Navajo while living next to the ocean.

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But, even among the Navajo, English is invading. One study in 1995 showed that only about half of the students now entering school are speakers of Navajo. The number of Navajo first graders who only speak English is almost four times higher than it was in 1970. Linguists consider the language to be "severely threatened."

That is particularly true when Navajo families migrate to urban places like Los Angeles. In A Seat at the Drum, Navajo mother Pricilla Rodriguez tries to teach her daughters Navajo, one word at a time. She has a hard time because some words just can't be translated. As Mark Anthony Rolo points out, Navajo has no word for "ocean."

"Navajo is a desert language, a language of red rock canyons, pinion pines, willows on the edges of small streams. It's a language of flash floods and scorching summer heat. It's a language of place, and the sadness of losing it is that we lose real knowledge about the desert Southwest that is thousands of years old. But it goes deeper than that. These lessons are all that Priscilla has to link her daughters to Navajo culture. I am left with the sad feeling that these girls may never be more Navajo than they are at this moment."

Losing the language means the tribe might lose its next generation of young people. Numerous studies have shown that Navajo students who are placed in classrooms that teach both Navajo and American culture in both the Navajo and English languages have higher scores on standardized tests than their English-only compatriots.

So, the tribal government is working to establish bilingual education. The Fort Defiance School in Arizona implemented a Navajo language immersion program in 1986. Kindergarten students are immersed in Navajo for at least 90 percent of the time. By second grade, teachers increase the English instruction to 50 percent of the time. In a 2001 study, by Marie Arviso and Wayne Holm, students at Fort Defiance did better academically than English-only learners in nearby schools. In addition, they were more integrated into their culture. They "acted more like traditional Navajo children." They displayed accepted social behaviors and were more active, verbal, focused and more relaxed. Teaching the language reinforced the culture.

Traditional Navajo culture is complex, but some observers have characterized the belief system of the Navajo people, or the Diné, as one seeking harmony between human beings and between humans and the natural world. Navajo society is based on a strong clan system that traces kinship through a person's mother and her relatives.

When traditional Navajo people greet each other, they will recount their dinnehih or clan affiliation. They might say, "I was 'born to or of' my mother's clan and 'born for' my father's clan." In Navajo that would be, "Tl'izilani nishli, [I am of the Many Goats people] To'aheedliinii bashishchiin [born for the Water-Flows-Together clan] Ashiihi da shi chei [my maternal grandparents are the Salt People] Bit'ahnii da shi nali [and my paternal grandparents are the Folded Arms People]."

Dinetah is the land of the Navajo. This is a specific place that can still be identified in today's geography of the American Southwest. Navajos believe they were created underground by the gods and emerged near what is now Silverton, Colorado. First Man and First Woman established the boundaries of Dinetah between four sacred mountains corresponding to the points on a compass — Debenstsa, Colorado in the north, Blanca Peak, Colorado in the east, Mt. Taylor, New Mexico in the south and the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona in the west. So the Diné live on sacred ground and almost every place on and around the present-day reservation has a spiritual significance.

On an individual level, the goal of a traditional Navajo is to live in Hozho, to live in harmony or to walk in beauty. There are two forces in the Navajo universe, Hozho the female and Naayee the male. Hozho is an inner state that dominates when all is in order. It is usually translated into English as 'harmony,' the order of the world, beauty, sensitivity and calm. The corresponding masculine force is destructive. It is war, brutality and aggressiveness.

Hozho is such a powerful concept that it has appeared in the best-selling novels by Tony Hillerman, and has been adopted as the guiding principal in the Navajo justice system.

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