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Young Navajos Study to Save Their Language

For part of her life, Sylvia Jackson stopped speaking her native language, Navajo. Like many Native American children, she had little chance to speak her language.

“We had to speak English. So I lost a lot of just speaking the Navajo language.”

More than 100 years ago, the U.S. government began sending Native American children to boarding schools. All the instruction was in English. The native cultures and languages of the children were discouraged.

In the last 20 to 30 years, tribal governments have started to promote the teaching of Native American languages in schools. The U.S. Department of Education now also supports Native American language programs.

Today, Sylvia Jackson is a Navajo language instructor in the small town of Holbrook, Arizona. She teaches Navajo to students at Holbrook High School. Her class is taught entirely in Diné, the Navajo language.

Ms. Jackson said both she and her students have an important part in keeping their language alive.

“My parents are actually, they grew up speaking the Navajo language; they’re fluent speakers. They’re like a dictionary. If I ask them, “How do you say this?” they translate. But me, I’m learning as I’m going.”

Navajo Nation

A Navajo man on a horse poses for tourists in front of the Merrick Butte in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah, in May 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV)

A Navajo man on a horse poses for tourists in front of the Merrick Butte in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah, in May 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV)

The town of Holbrook is an hour by car from the Navajo Nation. The 69,000-square-kilometer territory is the largest of the 326 Indian reservations in the United States. The Navajo Nation covers parts of four states in the American Southwest. It is about the same size as the country of Ireland.

During the 1800s, increasing numbers of European settlers in America moved west. In 1864, the federal government began a campaign to deport Navajos from their lands. The natives were moved to the northwest in a series of marches called the "Long Walk." The marches took place under the threat of death.

Navajo leaders and the U.S. government reached a peace treaty in 1868. It established the Navajo Indian Reservation.

Today, more than 250,000 people live in the Navajo Nation. They have their own laws, fly their own flag, and elect their own president.

The 2010 United States Census showed that about 170,000 Navajos speak Navajo at home. It is one of the most robust Native American languages today.

A right to speak Navajo

But there is a growing worry that the Navajo language could disappear. Seventy years ago, nearly everyone on the Navajo reservation spoke Navajo as their first language. But today, few young Navajos can speak the language of their grandparents.

A study in 1998 found that only 30 percent of Navajos entering school spoke Navajo as their mother tongue. Just 30 years earlier, that was true of 90 percent of first-grade Navajo students.

Richard Epstein is a linguist and professor at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He said a language’s survival depends on one generation passing down knowledge to the next generation.

“In order to keep a language alive, the adults of the community have to be able to transmit it to the young folks.”

Dr. Epstein calls teaching and transmitting your native language to your children a right that should be better protected.

“Everybody should have the right to speak their own language, just as much as they should have the right to practice their religion. Because their language is as good as everybody else’s language…So if you take that away, you’ve taken away a massive resource for knowing something about a part of human life.

"And you’ve taken away a part of who those people are. Is that right? Everybody should have the right to speak their language and to transmit their language to their children and to keep their culture alive.”

Navajo class at Indian Wells Elementary School

Navajo class at Indian Wells Elementary School

On the reservation itself, Navajo language instruction in schools starts at a young age. At Indian Wells Elementary School, 3rd graders are learning how to read, write, and speak Navajo. The school opened in 2001.

Dr. Robbie Koerperich was Indian Wells’ first principal. Now, he is the superintendent of the Holbrook Unified School District. He said his district is concerned with preserving the Navajo language.

“The Navajo language itself, I believe, is a major concern on the reservation and in our district, pertaining to the preservation of the language. So the preservation of the Navajo language is part of our mission.”

Hortensia is a third-grader at Indian Wells Elementary. She said Navajo language is her favorite class.

“So we could learn it and teach it to other people.”

The role of older generations

Hortensia said she often visits her grandmother, or naali in Navajo. Grandparents on the reservation play an important part in passing down both the language and culture to their grandchildren.

Morgan is a Navajo language student at Holbrook High School. She is one of Sylvia Jackson’s students. She visits her grandparents’ home with her cousins, nieces and nephews. She said she sometimes feels like an outcast.

“With my nieces and nephews and my cousins, they’re about my age or a bit older and they don’t speak Navajo. And so it’s a bit hard when we go out to my grandparents’ place and they try to talk to us. And it feels like — when my grandparents and my parents talk together — I feel like, kind of like an outcast, like I don’t know what they’re saying, but it's like, I want to learn the language so I can carry it on and then teach my kids. And so we won’t lose the language.”

Chester Nez talking about his time as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Chester Nez talking about his time as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Some of these students’ grandparents and great-grandparents may also have played an important part in U.S. history. During World War II, the U.S. military recruited Navajo speakers. Together, they developed a code to send secret information past Japanese and German code-breakers.

The code was never broken.

Dr. Epstein credits the Navajo language’s complex structure for it being such a successful code.

“It was so unbelievably complicated that the enemy couldn’t figure out how it worked. And yet we took the children of these people away from their families to train them to speak English only on the grounds that this language was inferior.”

Sylvia Jackson was once one of those children. Today, she finds herself at the forefront of keeping her language alive.

“If you just think about it, my parents, if they go, then that’s going to be me right there who has to carry that on. If I don’t have the knowledge that they had, that’s going to be it right there. So, I’m glad that we have students who want to learn the language, who want to keep that language.”

I’m Ashley Thompson.

And I’m Caty Weaver.

Ashley Thompson and Adam Brock wrote this story. Caty Weaver and Jill Robbins were the editors.


Words in This Story

promote - v. to help (something) happen, develop, or increase

robust - adj. strong and healthy

transmit - v. to give or pass (information, values, etc.) from one person to another

folks - n. people in general

principal - n. the person in charge of a public school

outcast - n. someone who is not accepted by other people

code - n. a set of letters, numbers, symbols, etc., that is used to secretly send messages to someone

inferior - adj. of little or less importance or value

forefront - n. the most important part or position

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