Navajos living in metro Phoenix connect with their language and culture through free classes offered at the Phoenix Indian Center. (Shondiin Silversmith/The Republic)
Scanning between the words in her book and examples of Navajo sentence structure on a whiteboard, Jolanda Avila was determined to write a full sentence in her nation’s language.
She brought her 18-year-old daughter, Adrianna, here to a Phoenix classroom on a Wednesday evening for a simple reason.
“I don’t know the language, so I can’t pass it on to my kids.” she said.
Avila, 36, lives in Peoria with her husband and four kids. All of her children are part Navajo, but none is fluent in the language, Diné, or frequently exposed to the culture.
That’s why Avila enrolled them in language and culture classes offered at the Phoenix Indian Center.
Avila believes that Navajo culture and language are in the heart. Over the years, Avila has absorbed small bits of the language — more than she previously thought, in fact. Those bits and pieces provide her a sense of comfort and safety, even if she doesn’t always understand all the Diné she hears.
“You feel home, and I want my kids to feel that same way,” she said. “They don’t get that as much because we live in an urban community, and there’s not very many Native Americans to interact with.”
How Navajos lost their fluency
The Navajo population has more than 330,000 people, and 22 percent of them live in metropolitan areas. The Phoenix area has the largest Navajo population, with more than 50,000 people, according to a report produced by the Navajo Epidemiology Center.
Even though there are more than 330,000 Navajo people, only about 169,000 are fluent speakers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The dwindling of Navajo fluency can be traced to the cultural assimilation of the Navajo people during the boarding-school days, when they were rewarded for speaking English and punished for speaking their language.
Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, who is an emerita professor of Navajo at Northern Arizona University, recalls the times she would have her mouth washed out with soap for speaking her language at Navajo Gospal Mission School in Hardrock, Arizona.
“We use soap for cleaning off dirt, and then you start to think, ‘What is wrong with my language? is it dirty?’ ” she said.
Yazzie believes there is still a stigma of shame surrounding that Navajo language.
“I can see us kind of moving away from that shame, but a lot of it is still there and it’s very heavy,” she added.
When Yazzie looks at the statistics on Navajo fluency presented by the U.S. Census, she feels that they need to be clarified because there are many levels of fluency in the Navajo language.
“When they say only this number of people speak Navajo, it’s misleading,” she added.
“There is a desire to speak (Navajo) and as long as the desire is there all you have to do is scratch the surface and the language is there.”
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Reconnecting with tribal culture
There is a huge difference between growing up in the city and on the reservation more than 3 hours away, said Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, Phoenix Indian Center’s director of development. She feels it’s important for Navajo people living in the city to be exposed to the language and culture, even if it’s on a weekly basis.
That’s why the midtown Phoenix center offers Diné (Navajo) language and cultural classes, to give Navajo people living in the city a way to stay connected.
On one side of the building, you can hear drum beats and songs as people participate in the Diné Singing class. On the other, you can hear people testing phrases in the Navajo language as part of the Adult Beginning Diné Language class.
The Navajo language class is designed for non-Navajo speakers like Jolanda and her daughter, and it helps them get started on a very basic level.
The difficulty of teaching Diné
Navajo language consultant Laverne Mannie stood by the whiteboard and went over sentence structure in Navajo using the book Diné Bizaad Bínáhoo’aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language, written by Yazzie, the language expert.
“If you really stick with that book and your lessons, it’s guaranteed you’ll be reading and writing in Navajo,” Mannie said.
On the whiteboard, she had three words divided into three categories: subject noun, object noun and verb.
One of the most common challenges Mannie said learners face is that many don’t know how to translate words from Navajo to English.
The challenge is that Navajo is a verb-based language. Verbs are powerful, whereas in the English, verbs don’t hold much power.
“I’m introducing words to them both in Navajo and English so they can have that connection,” Mannie said. She recommends three simple steps: hear it, say it, write it.
“You have to think about what you say,” Mannie said to the class. “It really is hard.”
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‘It’s a very sacred culture’
While the adults learned how to speak the language, across the building others were learning how to sing it.
Diné singing instructor Petra Reyes has been singing with the program for 10 years, and she hopes that other urban dwellers embrace their indigenous identity.
“It’s really empowering and amazing to be able to expose the children to part of who they are,” Reyes said.
The class is intergenerational, and she has participants focus on the key words, meaning, rhythm and melody. She believes that it offers them a better understanding of what songs they’re singing and why they’re singing them.
One of Reyes’ students is 8-year-old Elshadiaha Hardin, who attends the class with her younger brother.
“My favorite part about it is that we learn new words and it’s fun,” said Elshadiaha. She’s been learning how to sing in Navajo for the past three years.
“It’s a very sacred culture,” she added, and “it’s good to learn about it or else it won’t be around anymore.”
Elshadiaha has learned four new songs this summer. Her favorite Navajo song is about fry bread, because she loves it.
Their grandmother, Mary Sands, said there’s no other place like this.
“It’s easier for them to grasp it (Navajo language) when they sing it,” she added.
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Proud of who they are
Begay-Kroupa says even if class members learn only one song, it gives them a chance to be proud of who they are as Navajo people.
“The young students often take what they’re learning and share it with others … that are not Navajo,” she added.
Down the hall, that sense of pride was obvious as Jolanda Avila took the bits and pieces of Diné that live in her heart, and spun them into a complete sentence.
Asd?aá doo hastiin nidaalnish. Translation: “The woman and man are working.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to teach my kids (Navajo),” Avila said. “But I want to plant the seed.”
More about the classes
The Phoenix Indian Center offers Diné language and cultural classes every spring, summer, and fall. Registration is free for Navajo people living in the Phoenix area, and $150 for non-Navajos.
The summer classes for the Diné culture series, adult beginning Diné language and early childhood Diné language, are still open for registration and run weekly until the end of July. They’re offered every spring, summer and fall semesters.
For more information, visit www.phxindcenter.org.
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