During World War II, the U.S. military recruited Native American Navajo speakers and, together, they developed a code to send secret information past Japanese and German code-breakers.
The code was never broken.
Richard Epstein, a linguist and professor at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, credits the Navajo language’s complex structure for it being such a successful code.
“It was so unbelievably complicated that the enemy couldn’t figure out how it worked,” he said. “And yet we took the children of these people away from their families to train them to speak English only, on the grounds that this language was inferior.”
Discouraging native languages
More than 100 years ago, the U.S. government began sending Native American children to boarding schools where all the instruction was in English. The native cultures and languages of the children were discouraged.
“We had to speak English,” said Sylvia Jackson, one of those children who stopped speaking her native language. “So I lost a lot of just speaking the Navajo language.”
In the last 20 to 30 years, tribal governments have started to promote the teaching of Native American languages in schools. The U.S. Department of Education now also supports Native American language programs.
Today, Jackson is a Navajo language instructor in the small town of Holbrook, Arizona. She teaches Navajo to students at Holbrook High School. Her class is taught entirely in Diné, the Navajo language.
Jackson and her students play an important role in keeping their language alive.
“My parents are actually, they grew up speaking the Navajo language,” she said. “They’re fluent speakers. They’re like a dictionary. If I ask them, ‘How do you say this?’ they translate. But me, I’m learning as I’m going.”
The town of Holbrook is an hour by car from the Navajo Nation. The 69,000-square-kilometer territory is the largest of the 326 Indian reservations in the United States. The Navajo Nation covers parts of four states in the American Southwest. It is about the same size as the country of Ireland.
During the 1800s, increasing numbers of European settlers in America moved west. In 1864, the federal government began a campaign to deport Navajos from their lands. The natives were moved to the northwest in a series of marches called the “Long Walk.” The marches took place under the threat of death.
Navajo leaders and the U.S. government reached a peace treaty in 1868. It established the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Today, more than 250,000 people live in the Navajo Nation. They have their own laws, fly their own flag, and elect their own president.
The 2010 United States Census showed that about 170,000 Navajos speak Navajo at home. It is one of the most robust Native American languages today.
A right to speak Navajo
But there is a growing worry that the Navajo language could disappear. Seventy years ago, nearly everyone on the Navajo reservation spoke Navajo as their first language. But today, few young Navajos can speak the language of their grandparents.
A study in 1998 found that only 30 percent of Navajos entering school spoke Navajo as their mother tongue. Just 30 years earlier, that was true of 90 percent of first-grade Navajo students.
Linguist Epstein says a language’s survival depends on one generation passing down knowledge to the next generation.
“In order to keep a language alive, the adults of the community have to be able to transmit it to the young folks,” he said.
Epstein calls teaching and transmitting your native language to your children a right that should be better protected.
“Everybody should have the right to speak their own language, just as much as they should have the right to practice their religion,” he said. “Because their language is as good as everybody else’s language…So if you take that away, you’ve taken away a massive resource for knowing something about a part of human life. And you’ve taken away a part of who those people are. Is that right? Everybody should have the right to speak their language and to transmit their language to their children and to keep their culture alive.”
On the reservation itself, Navajo language instruction in schools starts at a young age. At Indian Wells Elementary School, third graders are learning how to read, write, and speak Navajo. The school opened in 2001.
Dr. Robbie Koerperich was Indian Wells’ first principal. Now, he is the superintendent of the Holbrook Unified School District and says the district is concerned with preserving the Navajo language.
“The Navajo language itself, I believe, is a major concern on the reservation and in our district, pertaining to the preservation of the language,” Koerperich said. “So the preservation of the Navajo language is part of our mission.”
Hortensia, a third-grader at Indian Wells Elementary, says Navajo language is her favorite class. “So we could learn it and teach it to other people.”
Hortensia says she often visits her grandmother, or naali in Navajo. Grandparents on the reservation play an important part in passing down both the language and culture to their grandchildren.
Morgan, a Navajo language student at Holbrook High School, is one of Sylvia Jackson’s students. She visits her grandparents’ home with her cousins, nieces and nephews, and sometimes feels like an outcast.
“With my nieces and nephews and my cousins, they’re about my age or a bit older and they don’t speak Navajo,” Morgan said. “And so it’s a bit hard when we go out to my grandparents’ place and they try to talk to us. And it feels like — when my grandparents and my parents talk together — I feel like, kind of like an outcast, like I don’t know what they’re saying, but it’s like, I want to learn the language so I can carry it on and then teach my kids. And so we won’t lose the language.”
Today, Sylvia Jackson, who was once taught to forget her native language, now finds herself at the forefront of keeping it alive.
“If you just think about it, my parents, if they go, then that’s going to be me right there who has to carry that on,” she said. “If I don’t have the knowledge that they had, that’s going to be it right there. So, I’m glad that we have students who want to learn the language, who want to keep that language.”
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