;Dine' Bizaad Binahoo'aah,' by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - With so many Native languages verging on extinction, Dine' language instructor Evangeline Parsons Yazzie decided to take on the daunting task of crafting a textbook on the language closest to her heart and in honor of Navajo elders.
With the help of her colleague Margaret Speas, a linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts, carrying out the footwork resulted in the publication of ''Dine' Bizaad Binahoo'aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language'' in January.
The Northern Arizona University professor said that she felt compelled to create a textbook after spending 15 years teaching out of textbooks that focused heavily on linguistics and less on the Navajo culture. She chose Speas as a co-author because the two had previously collaborated on academic projects and developed a friendship as a result of their love of the Dine' language.
Yazzie spent 15 years taking notes on what was missing in the textbooks she taught to her classes. As a result, she noticed that the culture was the missing link, and that cultural infusion was a critical element to the creation of a textbook that would best reflect Navajo traditions and customs. She grew up in the Hardrock community of the Navajo Nation.
''To an outsider, it's easy to say this is where the culture ends because they are studying it linguistically,'' she said. ''When you're writing from your heart, you don't know where the culture ends and the language begins.''
Speas agreed with Yazzie that the strictly linguistic approach to writing textbooks has its setbacks. ''They put in more than someone learning how to speak the language really needs to know,'' she said.
Nearly every chapter of the glossy, 448-page textbook merges the language and culture of the Navajo people. She equates the language and culture with the nurturing of precious twins. During the writing process, she met with Navajo elders on a weekly basis to seek input on the content.
''I had to go through the elders to see if it was an OK book,'' she said. ''American Indians are running out of time when it comes to their language, and the elders are leaving us so fast.''
The first four chapters explore the alphabet, sound system, verbs and sentence construction. Chapter 5 and 6 delve into immediate and extended family relationships while giving step-by-step instructions on how to enunciate maternal and paternal relations.
Chapter 7 covers the importance of clan relationships in the Navajo culture. When two Navajo people meet, it is proper etiquette to say their clan or ''K'e'' associations in the following order: mother, father, grandmother and grandfather.
Yazzie reveals her own clan connections in the first paragraph in the ''About the Authors'' section. She was born into the Water Flows Together People, and born for the Coyote Pass/Jemez People. Her maternal grandfather comes from the Red Running into the Water People and her paternal grandfather comes from the Bitter Water People.
''I wanted people to know that the person who wrote this was Navajo,'' she said.
Chapter 30 reveals her deep knowledge and understanding of the eight Navajo-U.S. treaties and U.S. treaties with Indian nations. Yazzie served as the director of the Navajo Treaty Project from 1997 - 99, and wanted students to learn about their history. There are no language lessons in this chapter. ''We need to know what our rights are as American Indians,'' she said.
The textbook features black-and-white and contemporary photographs and easy-to-follow illustrations. Most of the black-and-white photos were given to her by Ameritribes, formally known as the Navajo Gospel Mission.
She said that Ameritribes officials told her that they had digitized about 1,000 photos of bygone generations and wanted to give away the black-and-white originals. Yazzie was at the right place and the right time, and received the entire collection.
''I thought that we needed to create something that is so beautiful to look at,'' she said. ''I wanted this textbook to reflect beauty, grace and elegance.''
The publishing company, Salina Bookshelf Inc., is known for their bilingual books in Dine' and English. Yazzie published her first children's book, ''Dzani Yazhi Naazbaa: Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home,'' with Salina, and has edited children's books for the Flagstaff-based company.
She worked closely with the art department to ensure that the textbook was eye-appealing and best reflected the Navajo language and culture. ''Most of the time, a company takes a textbook and shapes it to their liking,'' she said. ''I had my hands on my baby the whole time.''
Speas took on a mostly editorial role during the project. Yazzie would send her pages from the book to edit. On occasion, Speas would make the trek to Arizona to power out more pages. ''She put so much interesting material in it that is also really relevant to contemporary Navajo students,'' she said.
Yazzie said the textbook is geared for college and high school students, but middle school teachers have inquired about the book for use in their classrooms.
''A teacher can do a lot with this textbook,'' she said.
Within the next few months, a companion CD and workbook are slated for release. To order or inquire about the textbook, visit www.salinabookshelf.com.