Preserving the Navajo language

  • Hear from the teacher of a Navajo-language class and her students (audio slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode)

According to the 2004 United States Census, 381,000 people age 5 or older speak a North American native language. Navajo is the most common with 178,014 speakers. The Census also reported that 28 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives speak a language other than English at home, but the percentage is dropping in some areas. This means that the number of Native American languages spoken at home is dropping and some languages are in danger of extinction.

Alex Griffin and Geoff Sink, two students in the intermediate Navajo-language class at the University of Utah, participated in a program offered by the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center that sends Navajo-language students to a reservation during spring break to stay with a Navajo family. Both Griffin and Sink went to Navajo Mountain, Utah, a small town on the border of Utah and Arizona. 

They noticed differences among age groups when it came to speaking the language..

“A lot of people who are old enough to be my grandparents only spoke Navajo, or if they spoke English it was very limited,” Griffin said. “The people who were old enough to be my parents spoke both equally well, although some were more comfortable with Navajo. Anyone my age and younger was kind of a mixed bag. There were some kids who spoke Navajo pretty well, but there were a lot who didn’t or they understood it but they couldn’t speak it.”

One woman Griffin met while on the reservation felt it important for her 3-year-old son to start learning Navajo. She decided to leave him with his grandmother before going to work so that he would have more exposure to the language.

Sharee Varela, a graduate student in the U’s Department of Languages and Literature who teaches Navajo, feels the reasons the language is not being passed on to the younger generations is because they go to live in the city where Navajo is not spoken. And on the reservation, most schools do not teach it at early ages.

“There are some bilingual schools that will teach children both English and Navajo,” she said.

One project that does this is the Puente de Hózhǭ revitalization project in Flagstaff, Ariz. This project focuses on teaching children both English and Navajo or Spanish and English, depending on the student. Varela said she also knows of other schools that do the same in Fort Defiance and Windowrock, Ariz., as well as in Shiprock, N.M.

However, Varela said some Navajos believe that schools shouldn’t waste their time teaching Navajo.

“My father is old-school and he believes that Navajo language should not be taught in school,” she said. “He believes that parents should be responsible for teaching their children the Navajo language.”

But she asks her father, “What about the other kids that want to learn? What if the parents speak Navajo but don’t really know how to read or write it? Then who teaches them [the children]?”

Varela believes the reason the Navajo language is possibly becoming endangered is a combination of these two ideas: parents not teaching it to their children and most teachers not teaching it in schools. She also blamed governmental actions. Both California and Arizona have English-only initiatives banning bilingual education for virtually all children learning English as a second language. Even students whose English is limited are prohibited from learning in any language other than English. Nevertheless, Varela said some schools in rural areas of Arizona continue using bilingual programs.

Hotki Miles, the former Miss Utah Navajo, also participates in the Navajo language class at the U. She decided to take the class to better connect with her culture and to communicate more easily with her grandparents and other relatives who speak Navajo. Miles’ mother is Navajo but her father is not. Her mother does not speak the language very well, so Miles never learned it growing up. While participating in Navajo cultural events such as Miss Utah Navajo, she was sometimes disappointed that she could not communicate with those who spoke only Navajo. She is excited to be able to understand and speak some Navajo with her relatives.

“My relatives don’t look at me anymore as a stupid kid that doesn’t know Navajo,” she said.

Because of the effort Miles has put into learning the language and her culture, she said the older generations are more accepting and respectful of her. Many times after speaking or performing at an event, some of the older Navajo women came up to her, congratulated her and call her “shideezhi,” which means little sister.

Varela has had other Navajo students, like Miles, who have taken her classes to learn Navajo in hopes of connecting with relatives and understanding their culture. Varela said older Navajos are always very happy when her students come to them and try speaking the language. Even if the students say something the wrong way or with the wrong accent, it still makes them happy that students are learning their native language.