Language is something we use constantly, yet we don’t always think about our words and realize they’re a part of our heritage. What would we do if our language was dying? What would we do if we were losing our cultural identity?
For those whose native language is English, there doesn’t appear to be any danger of that happening anytime soon, although one could argue some people’s butchering of certain words and phrases is a sign of the apocalypse. However, for many American Indian tribes, the loss of their indigenous language is a sad reality, a destiny tribal leaders seek to reverse as more and more young people leave the reservations and immerse themselves in American culture, often seen as the culture of the “white man.”
I’ve seen the problem for years as I’ve covered tribes as a journalist. I was part of a weekly newspaper on the western edge of the Navajo Nation for more than seven years, and the reality that more Navajo spoke English as their only language was disconcerting to those who held Diné values so dearly. Much of it had to do with the boarding schools Navajo children were sent to, where they were forced to assimilate into an American way of life and were often punished for speaking Navajo. Their native tongue became a source of shame instead of pride.
How do you reverse such a cultural assault? How do you get young people to embrace their heritage and speak their language?
You do it with puppets.
Stop laughing. I’m being serious.
While waiting for the lottery numbers to come in one night, I browsed Facebook and saw someone had posted an opinion piece from the Washington Post titled “A Native American ‘Sesame Street’ could help save dying languages.”
The headline definitely caught my attention, and so I clicked on the link. The author, Charmaine Jackson, was talking about the dwindling number of people who still speak Navajo fluently, and she was among them.
Here’s what she had to say about her proposed program, “Diné Bí Ná’álkid Time”:
“Focusing on children is crucial to saving the Diné language. While there are 7,600 traditional Diné-only speakers and about 169,000 Navajo-English fluent speakers still in the United States, the language will not survive if children are not learning it. Just as we help children learn English and Spanish through educational programs like “Sesame Street,” shouldn’t we do the same with Native American languages?”
After reading the Post piece, I checked out other stories in the Navajo Times and the Navajo-Hopi Observer, and Jackson and her business partner, Dr. Shawna Begay, are trying to raise money to get her show off the ground. There was consideration of asking the makers of “Sesame Street” to just dub their show in Navajo, but teaching the Navajo language is only one part of the goal. “Diné Bí Ná’álkid Time” would also teach about the Navajo culture—Creation stories, sacred sites like the San Francisco Peaks and more.
The show features a Navajo puppet named Nanabah, who is fluent in Navajo, and her friends, a rabbit named Gáh and a prairie dog named Dlǫǫ, and they go on adventures with human companions while learning the Navajo language and culture.
This is innovative. When I was a reporter and editor for the Lake Powell Chronicle, part of my job was covering several Navajo communities, and some of my favorite stories were going out on the reservation and writing about Navajo cultural events. Some of my tougher stories were writing about the troubles on the reservation, and tales of the boarding schools and of young people leaving the reservation and their culture were heartbreaking.
I was also indoctrinated into “Sesame Street” at a very young age—pre-Elmo, mind you. Besides giving me a lifelong love for the Muppets, I believe having that kind of stimulation helped me learn to read at just 3½ (a source of great pride for my mother) and made me one of the brighter students in class going through school. If such a program was able to help a poor, country boy like me, then I can just imagine how it could benefit all the young Navajo children.
The Navajo people have an amazing culture and a rough history, not unlike most of the other Indian tribes in America. Those who have managed to hold on to their cultural identity and maintain their traditional values are to be commended. In a world where technology and politics rule the day, it is more important than ever to hold onto your beliefs and your culture. When a language dies, the culture dies, too.
If it wasn’t for the Navajo language, America might not still be the free nation it is today. Many Navajos were recruited during World War II to send secret messages in their native tongue, a code that the Germans never could break. After decades of beating the language out of the Navajo people, it became a valuable tool to win a war.
There’s not much to be done for the older generations. I lived among Navajos for more than seven years, and I still only know a few words. Young children are like sponges, though, and if you plant the seed in them, it will flourish into something glorious.
Naalkid Productions, the company creating “Diné Bí Ná’álkid Time,” has a GoFundMe page with a goal of $50,000. So far, almost $12,900 has been raised. If you’d like to donate, go to https://www.gofundme.com/saveournavajolanguage, where you can see a pilot segment of the show. Think of it as doing your part to stop the extinction of a culture.