Words’ worth: A vote to strike down a Navajo fluency requirement raises questions

Editor’s note: This online version corrects mistakes concerning figures that were contained in the print version of this article in the August 2015 Free Press.

The Navajo Nation’s July 21 passage of a referendum eliminating the requirement for presidential and vice presidential candidates to be fluent in the Navajo language has prompted far-reaching discussions about its impacts.


Irene Hamilton, a retired language arts teacher, reads from one of the Native American Material Development Center books produced and published in 1976. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

Supporters said it will help young Navajos, many of whom aren’t fluent, to become more involved in politics. They said the value of a candidate’s fluency will be decided by voters in primary and general elections. If a candidate is not fluent in Diné Bizaad (the language of the Navajo people) yet wins the election, then the people will have deemed language fluency an insignificant issue.

But many educators, traditionalists, and language specialists are concerned that the referendum’s passage is a step toward the death of the language altogether, and possibly a threat to tribal sovereignty.

Previously, Navajo regulations required presidential and vice presidential candidates to state on their filing papers that they were fluent.

But during the latest presidential election, originally scheduled for November 2014, the fluency of candidate Chris Deschene was challenged in court. After months of petitions and appeals, and delays in the election, the Navajo Supreme Court disqualified him based on his failure to prove his fluency during testimony before the Office of Hearings and Appeals.

Russell Begaye, the third-place winner in the primary, then replaced Deschene on the ballot for the general election against Joe Shirley, a former two-time Navajo President, and the first-place winner in the August 2014 primary.

Begaye ultimately won.

The issue deeply divided the Diné, fueling a debate that resulted in Navajo council legislation that ordered a referendum on fluency. The legislation also provided $317,000 funding to support the election on July 21.

When the referendum was held, 24,795 people, 21 percent of registered voters, came to the polls. The referendum passed by 1,239 votes, less than 1 percent of the total population of the Navajo people (approximately 287,000, which includes children and unregistered members of the tribe). Slightly less than 10 percent of the total registered voters decided the future value of the Navajo language for the whole tribe.

“I don’t know any tribe that would vote to not require their president to speak their native language,” commented Manuel Morgan of Aneth, Utah. “What did it show the youth? It showed them that the language doesn’t matter, that the Navajo culture doesn’t matter.”

The importance of Navajo language fluency, now placed in the hands of the voters, will affect the outcome of the elections as soon as 2018. According to some comments on social media, opponents saw the decision as a threat to the tribe’s sovereignty, an opening of the door to outside corporate interests and cultural colonization.

“It is the beginning of our demise,” added Morgan. “Say goodbye to our traditions, as well.”


‘Enthusiasm and


In 1976, Gloria Emerson, Tse Daa K’aan Chapter, was appointed director of the Native American Material Development Center. She worked with more than 20 employees to develop the first classroom materials written and produced entirely in the Navajo language and suitable for use for K-12 grade levels.

“The project was charged with energy,” said Emerson, in a recent interview. “I hired the best Navajo speakers, writers, graphic illustrators and production people and they just took to it. It was an atmosphere of enthusiasm and conviction about our vision and purpose.”

The project publications were heralded at the time for their innovative approach to Navajo language and culture. Soon after, a 1984 Navajo regulation made language education a requirement. The NAMDC materials and curriculum, still available at the Pine Hill warehouse, a project of the Ramah Navajo School Board, have been quietly in use without much oversight for 40 years.

In an effort to identify the effects of the referendum vote on the language use, a group of academic, government, education and political grassroots advocates, many of them the former employees of the NAMDC project, gathered on July 30 at the Western New Mexico University campus in Gallup, N.M.

The discussion concentrated on the revitalization of the Navajo language and its value in relation to culture, sovereignty and tribal identity. The conversation at the meeting was not about English-language classes, English as Second Language or English Only programs. Instead, it focused on the assessment of the current use of the language and possible projects and policies that would re-vitalize the use and fluency of speakers.

Emerson rallied the support of three former employees, Rose Fasthorse Nofchissey, her sister Lydia, and Anna Redsand, to organize the gathering in Gallup.

In opening remarks, Emerson said 10 years ago she visited a reservation classroom where a Navajo language program was being taught. “Here was the classroom with the materials and curriculum, students and teachers. But it was quiet. Quiet. No one was speaking the language. They were reading and writing, but not speaking.”

“The heart of continuing the language is found in speaking it,” adds Rose Fasthorse Nofchissey, a teacher at Navajo Preparatory school in Farmington, N.M. “It really is that easy to define. Based on what we value and believe in, if we say it in English then we value English more than our own language. By passing the referendum we have accepted assimilation and dominance of the Euro-American ways,” she said.

She listed the five levels of use that define the death of a language. “When the language is alive it is being used all over the reservation by all ages and everyone speaks the language.” But today, she said, “the lack of use by the people and especially by the younger people indicates that the Diné language is only one step above extinction.”

At the meeting, Lydia Fasthorse Nofchissey, a language educator at Window Rock High School, introduced a series of breakout groups asking participants to define the depth of language loss by identifying the current state of its use and the implications of the language referendum.


Death of a language

Ancita Benally, a specialist in the DODE Language Culture and Education department, said in a phone interview that the 2010 census showed the number of Navajo speakers at 169,471.

In 2004, Navajo language ability was measured in a survey of all reservation agency Head Start children. At that time only 1 percent of them spoke the language.

More recently, the 2014-15 oral language assessment among K-12 students across the Navajo Nation showed that 98-99 percent of the students are non-proficient in their native language.

Although Morgan did not attend the meeting, he said in an interview afterward, “The referendum politicized our language, our culture. The point of this election was to recognize that we don’t speak our language. Deschene should have admitted it and said, ‘I’m gonna learn Diné Bizaad.’ But he didn’t.”

Morgan’s wife, Yanua Adakai, said it’s obvious that education programs are not working, and also explained that any student can get out of the class if they bring a note from their parents saying they don’t need to study Navajo.

“The answer is in speaking Navajo. The vote showed that,” she added, “but you can’t blame the schools. Maybe we should ask the Mexicans. Every little Mexican child I know speaks fluent Spanish. Why? Because it is spoken to them in the home.”


Border identities

Issues of sovereignty and the right to require Navajo language in reservation schools arise when policies are set by the Navajo government. Do state education standards supersede Navajo standards?

“The new state standards are only four years old. How much can the schools do?” Reuben McCabe, asked the group. He is Senior Education Specialist at the NN Division of Diné Education. “After the referendum the Division [of Diné Education] is already hearing that some schools are saying they don’t have to offer the language programs.” He suggested the Navajo council look at community-level language policies.

The use of language as border identityalso raises the issue of sovereign boundaries. As an example, the use of the Navajo language for all signage and names of all roads and communities in the Navajo Nation would create a link, a relationship between language and place.

If a visitor crosses a border into another country and the language changes on the other side, the visitor knows she has entered a different country. If the language on both sides is the same, then the border is obscured.

Way-finding, the urban/community planning term for mapping and signage, is a domain that could be used as an assertion of sovereignty. So could the radio.

The group emphasized the influence that the radio station KTNN had on the referendum vote. The all-Navajo-speaking station is broadcast throughout the reservation and surrounding border regions. In their assessments the group stated that it was an example of a domain that is changing the language because it is adapting the pronunciation to the needs of the domain.

“Domain is a socio-linguistic term,” explained Redsand, “The radio is an example of commercialized Navajo. It is becoming its own dialect.” A fluent Navajo speaker, she is an educator, a sociolinguist, and the author of books based on her experience growing up as a child of missionary parents on the rez, including the forthcoming memoir, “White Rez Kid.”

“Language planning is all about language maintenance and modernization in service of maintenance. As a sociolinguist, I can strongly affirm that language policy matters in the maintenance of endangered languages.”

Other domains, such as Facebook and YouTube, are potential education venues.

William P. Yazzie of Chinle, Ariz., sang some Navajo social songs for the group. He also demonstrated, through a YouTube rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town in Navajo (which was quite entertaining) how language learning could be accessed through use of the Internet.

Laura Tohe, author, poet and professor at Arizona State University, identified another domain for the group, less obvious than the media. While she attends writing and poetry workshops at schools throughout the reservation she looks at literature-class curriculums, suggested reading lists and libraries.

“I was in a workshop in a Navajo high school a few years ago. While there I looked into the English literature classes. No Navajo writers’ books were being taught. I found mostly dead white male authors.

“It is important to include our own writers, such as Lucy Tapahonso and other Native writers, indigenous authors. There are many of us.”

The literature curriculums, reading lists and libraries create an almost invisible domain sanctioned by educational standards that “value the dominant Bilagaana culture,” she said.


Role of the elders

During the brainstorming sessions it was agreed that the referendum divided generations, families, and spouses.

Rose Nofchissey observed, “The referendum lost sight of the real purpose – the elderly vision of cultural preservation. It gave more credence and emphasis to the politicizing of Diné Bizaad.”

There were suggestions from the group to address the absence of elders in the learning process, such as “nest” language centers based mostly at the chapter level, where elders and younger people could use the language together. They hope it will be possible to align Diné language with social and ceremonial events.

The group also advocates having elders in the classroom and encouraging programs where elders become part of the community again.

“Travel learning would connect historic places to the memory of the elders. It brings a different appreciation,” added Tohe.

“I went with Harry Walters on a trip to sacred land near Farmington and while I was there I could peel back layers of Navajo stories, visit the stories. Travel with this in mind will encourage a respect for our land, the sacred earth.”

Many of the original books published by the NAMDC project were brought to the meeting from the warehouse. They covered 12 large conference tables.

Rose Nofchissey showed a book that translated “The Little Red Hen” into Navajo. “This is an example of valuing the English story translated into Navajo over a Navajo story written in Navajo,” she said.

Another book, “Texts of the Navajo Creation Chants,” published by Peabody Museum of Harvard University, was translated and printed in English only. Identity is blurred in both of these examples, she explained.

English was also the language used on the recent referendum ballot. “Wording of the ballot was confusing, and many who intended to vote against the change inadvertently voted for it,” said Redsand. It was even more difficult for elder voters because it manipulated the English language until it was not clear whether a yes vote supported the requirement for language fluency, or not.

Seeking official Navajo policies on language usage and requirements is a step toward ownership of the issue while exercising the rights of sovereignty, and slowing down the demise of the language, attendees agreed.

The meeting in Gallup was an example of language engendering social structure. All participants spoke Navajo. Everyone was addressed by kinship, which is formalized in the structure of the language.

The communication pattern allowed time for consideration of topics. The meeting was conducted primarily in Navajo and even though people disagreed at times it was productive, polite and inclusive.

Emerson asked representatives of the Division of Diné Education to move in partnership with them, to come together with the group and to create a language commission.

“Our language has been politicized by this referendum, but through community action we can pressure the tribe to take a leadership role to express our sovereignty and declare our Navajo language the official language of the Nation. We can’t afford to lose more time.”

Note: The Navajo language was used during the meeting more than 90 percent of the time. Translations and interpretations were clarified for the Free Press by various participants in the conference as needed.

From August 2015. Read similar stories about .