How to preserve native languages?

Most linguists agree that there is value in preserving a native language – that culture travels in the spoken word.

For many people from indigenous cultures, home resonates in the sound of an elder’s voice speaking in their native language. The words are naturally linked to food, family and the warmth of shelter. Storytelling in native tongues teaches the young how life should be led.

Cecelia Silentman Carr, a Navajo language teacher at Shiprock High School, presents a story about her clans at a 2012 Diné Language Teachers Association conference.

Cecelia Silentman Carr, a Navajo language teacher at Shiprock High School, presents a story about her clans at a 2012 Diné Language Teachers Association conference. Photo by Tina Deschenie

Yet today, according to Alex Rose, author of, “The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales,” more than 40 percent of the world’s 6,000 languages are currently endangered.

Is it possible to reinvigorate the waning use of a native language? What benefit is there for a student to study a native language in the U.S classroom today?

These questions lay the foundation for the annual Navajo Language Teachers Association Winter Conference, coming Jan. 24-26 at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M.

Teachers come from reservation and border- community classrooms surrounding the Navajo Nation to share curricula, take workshops and learn new approaches to Navajo language education.

In his article “Lost in Translation,” posted on the American Councils for International Education, Ros writes that, “It is no doubt true that English (or at least the culture English represents) offers a host of benefits to many far-flung communities — access to international trade, exposure to vaccines and antibiotics, plus the comforts and conveniences of modern technology — yet it almost necessarily comes at the expense of local traditions.”

The Navajo Language Teachers Conference is conducted entirely in Navajo. Its subtitle this year reflects the theme of winter tales and oral traditions in language: “Hane’ Nihina’nitin – We Learn Through our Stories,” a rich treasure of material for teachers and their students.

Traditional Navajo culture gives seasonal guidelines for storytelling topics. They change during winter and summer season. At this winter conference, stories passed on there are the tales that can only be spoken of after the first snowfall has arrived but before spring returns, when the stories are put to rest until the next winter.

The biggest mountain-dweller to be affected by this seasonal-content taboo is the bear. The separation of seasons prevents the bear from hearing certain stories, and maybe eavesdropping on others. Stories not told while he is roaming his stomping grounds during warmer months are told safely out of his earshot in the winter while he is hibernating.

‘Stay in the language’

The three-day conference will open Thursday evening with storytelling by Shiprock artist Larry King. Professional storyteller Sunnie Dooley will perform on Friday. On Saturday, the conference will close with storytelling by Raymond Redhouse Jim, the Navajo practitioner from Navajo Technical College’s Teec Nos Pos campus.

Although most of the 100-plus expected attendees are Navajo, many people from the general public attend because there is much to learn, even for those who do not speak or understand the Navajo language.

This year’s conference chairperson, Tina Deschenie, noticed an elder Navajo man attending many of the offerings last year when she was a keynote speaker. At the end of the conference he approached her, saying that he was retired from working in the coal industry and currently enrolled as a student in Diné College, where he heard about the conference and just wanted to attend. He was fluent in Navajo, and said to her, “You people are so serious about your respect for the language,” according to Deschenie.

“It was wonderful to hear his response and it made us all happy that an elder Navajo gentleman came and assessed our work with this constructive comment. We do respect our language.”

Deschenie was tapped as a keynote speaker for the first time in 2000 by chairperson Ben Barney. He asked her to speak in Navajo only. “Stay in the language,” says Deschenie, “I was to speak all in Navajo – no English at all. I was reluctant to do that because I didn’t feel confident enough to talk non-stop like that.”

The difficulty comes when translating certain types of words, like education terminology in English, into the Navajo language. A straightforward term can be complex, even poetic and lengthy. “But, in the end, I actually did it. I managed it and surprised myself.”

A missing piece

The revitalization of the language in the schools helps to maintain the Navajo culture and identity, supporters say. Presenters at the conference share lesson plans and curricula that work in their classrooms but admit what they seek is the cultural component, how to teach that their language is the culture and culture is held in the language.

“It’s a missing piece from most language arts,” adds Deschenie, “even dual-language conferences.”

Last year’s conference chairperson, Rose Fasthorse Nofchissey, invited Deschenie to speak again. “It put me on my toes, even while I was so paranoid about holding up my end of the deal. I was more confident.”

What she didn’t plan on was becoming chairperson of the event this year. But – guided by the example set last year, when the presenters included women teaching by sharing wool processes from shearing to weaving, patiently explaining life stories and how they relate to language – she took on the task, considering it an honor to make the commitment.

Restoring balance

“We Learn Through our Stories,” is a broad focus. Deschenie and the other two co-directors look toward the strength of culturally-based organizations that are thriving on the reservation for the standard they want to set at the conference.

Diné be’ iiná, Inc., “The Navajo Lifeway,” sponsor of the popular regional Sheep is Life activities, is a nonprofit organization founded by Diné sheepherders and weavers in 1991. It works to reinforce traditional methods that help maintain Navajo life ways which focus on sheep, wool and fiber arts. Diné be’ iina is dedicated to conserving the Navajo-Churro sheep as well as educating the public about the importance of the Diné sheep culture. Diné be’ iiná’s mission is to restore the balance between Navajo culture, life and land.

According to Deschenie, Roy Kady, internationally renowned Navajo weaver from Teec Nos Pos, and a vital teaching force in the Sheep is Life workshops, explains the stories and cultural meaning inside the leitmotifs he continues to weave in each rug he puts on display.

She explains that he did so at the last conference and hopes he will again this year because his work perfectly fits the storytelling theme, showing how language is related to the preservation of culture through spinning and the complex weaving found in rugs and blankets.

Other presenters and workshops, vendors and participants eager to contribute to the vitality of the conference are planning events that reflect traditional learning through game-playing.

On Friday evening a demonstration “shoe game” will be held. It is a winter activity held in communities throughout the Navajo Nation, based on the conflict between day and night creatures wherein each, in the creation story, wanted the natural cycle to be theirs solely. A contest was held to determine who would control the natural cycle. It centers on boots buried in the sand after a ball of yucca root is placed inside one. The tops of the boots are exposed so that a player from the other team is left to guess in which boot the yucca ball is hidden.

The teams play for points, adding and subtracting quickly throughout the night, skillfully maneuvering their teams toward victory. The scores are counted among both teams with 102 yucca leaves, passed between them as they score or lose points.

In the end, the game is evenly divided between winner and losers and the point is made that both day and night are needed to bring harmony and balance to the natural cycles of the earth.

It is a playful example of community commitment to teaching culture and language while teaching math and strategy skills.

Lesson plans

Conference presenters share lesson plans in math, grammar, history and even sports. The fresh ideas help stabilize the duallanguage programs and develop a steady flow of curriculum from grade-school levels through college. Most Navajo teachers come to second-language education as fluent Navajo speakers. Even so, they welcome suggestions and share easily what works for them.

Irene Hamilton is an educator with endorsements in bilingual education and English as a second language. She currently teaches at Kirtland (N.M.) Central High School. “I am close to retirement; therefore I feel more generous with ideas,” she says. “After this season, I will have taught 30 years, half of the time as a Navajo language teacher.”

She attends the conference because “it allows us to share practical ideas for teaching. So much of the profession demands being innovative in our teaching practices. For a language educator, sharing ideas at this event encourages others and reaffirms intentions.”

Today, Nofchissey teaches at Central Consolidated School in Shiprock, but she began by working in the Window Rock School District in 1992-93. At that time it was required that all sixth graders take Navajo language. Gradually, the school district added grade levels until it became a K-12 requirement. She was surprised by the non-Navajos in the classroom – Persian, African-American, Bilagáana, who learned faster and easier than the Navajo students.

After she stopped comparing the learning by this criterion, she asked a harder question, considering instead why this difference was so apparent. “I believe it is a two-fold reason. The non-Navajo have better study skills and were motivated by the course as a serious academic endeavor.

“The second reason relates to the effects of colonization on self-esteem. Navajo students have learned that they are looked upon as inferior, poor, isolated and are embarrassed by the way they are portrayed in the media. They have absorbed this lesson.”

But Nofchissey says that scores in state tests measuring math and English skills actually increase at schools teaching the dual-language programs. At the same time so does the popularity of Navajo-language students in the community. As their skills increase they are invited to present stories at chapter meetings or to sing at events, parades and celebrations, which then increases the interest from elders and parents.

“It shows what we value and what we believe when we go beyond and really celebrate the language.

“Kids are still searching for identities. If there was a continuous program from grade school through high school everywhere, it would make a big difference in mental and physical health.”

Too little, too late?

Today most young Navajo parents are not fluent in the language because they do not live in households that speak Navajo only. They are part of a changing, modern world. “Young people today do not know that they are responsible for the new life that comes through them,” says Nofchissey. “Instead, they have been immersed in music, dancing, partying and the good life they see on television and in the media, in English. They don’t develop the values we can teach in Navajolanguage courses that will balance that modern life.”

According to a press release from the Center for Diné Studies and the Diné Policy Institute, both at Diné College, “Language has shifted greatly from Navajo to English in recent years. Two generations ago, nearly all young Navajo children came to schools as fluent speakers of Navajo.

“Twenty years ago, an analysis of Navajo children in Head Start centers showed that language was shifting away from Navajo. Only one of seven children at that time spoke Navajo fluently.

“By all accounts, the percentage of Navajo children who speak Navajo proficiently has decreased dramatically since then. While there are as many as 70,000 fluent speakers of Navajo, fewer and fewer children speak the language. Educators, linguists, and indeed many elders agree that the survival of Navajo language is at stake.”

Navajo language immersion schools offer a more intense assimilation of language in everyday use. Those that are operating on the reservation teach curricula encouraging students, faculty and administration to “stay in the language.” All conversation, all courses, all activities – casual or academic – are in Navajo.

One of the first, begun by Dr. Wayne Holm in 1985-86, was the Fort Defiance Navajo Immersion program at the elementary school. It was a program within the school. In 2002, the program evolved into the present K-8 Tsehootsooi Dine Bi’olta’ immersion school located in a separate, formerly condemned elementary school in Fort Defiance.

The students came to Nofchissey at the Window Rock sixth-grade class fully able to read and write Navajo, but found it hard to learn Navajo unless they could write it down.

“They would be able to write their answers to specific questions in Navajo, but then would switch to English after the question. It had truly become an academic course for them. We couldn’t converse with them, but when we involved the grandparents and parents in activities, that changed the conversation skills.”

Diné poetry

Rough Rock and Rock Point, both in Arizona, are also K-5 immersion schools. “I am fascinated by the Rock Point graduates,” says Nofchissey. Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim is one of many successful Rock Point classmates who spent his grade-school years in the dual-language program there that began in the ’60s.

Prior to his election, he served as a Navajo Nation Council delegate. He is a poet and playwright, an actor, director and producer, and a graduate of Princeton University and Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Jim will be the keynote speaker at the winter conference.

The dual-language program begun at Rock Point that nurtured his intellect was funded by the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, in which the federal government recognized the needs of students with limited Englishspeaking ability.

“The Diné Language Teachers Association knew this was the perfect theme for our vice president. We are glad he has accepted being a keynote speaker at the winter conference this year because among the handful of books published in Navajo with sidebar translations in English, only his is published without translation,” says Deschennie.

Jim’s book, “Ahi Ni’ Nikisheegiizh, Lenape Yaa Deez’a,” Princeton University, 1989, does not even translate the page numbers, index and table of contents. It is used in many immersion classes for its content as well as its native-language format.

In the introduction to the anthology, “Reinventing the Enemy’s Language,” editors Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird point out, “Within the written literary traditions of native people, we have only one volume of poetry, by Diné poet Rex Lee Jim, written totally in a native language with no English translation.”

Inée Yang Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., has also accepted an invitation to speak at the January conference. In 1997, the institute she directs convened 30 language revitalization experts from various tribes and organizations. They agreed that a national center was needed to help connect those who are working on language preservation and revitalization. Guidelines and a “wish list” of what this national center would provide for Indian Country were developed.

Today the institute serves American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and First Nations of Canada, and the international indigenous community. Their workshops and services provide tools to help native-language teachers and learners help themselves in their efforts to bring language back into everyday lives of the people.

If Deschennie and Nofchissey could change any basic structure in the language programs today it would be the amount of time spent learning the language and parental involvement.

“Thirty minutes a day is not enough,” says Deschennie. “We strive toward increasing the time for the study. So much teaching is oriented to English reading, writing, math – all the common core standards.

“At immersion schools like Window Rock, parental involvement is critical because so few young parents, so few families, speak Navajo. We value their contributions because it maintains the everyday use and our identity and the cultural ways of life that are embedded in the language.”

For registration or vendor information for the Navajo Language Teachers Association Winter Conference, e-mail dinelanguageteachers@ or call 505-721-1028. For presenter information call 505-368- 5175, e-mail: and for more information on the conference locations and offerings go to www.sanjuancollege. edu/nac.

From January 2013.