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Navajos work to preserve language handed down by 'Holy People'

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By Erny Zah -- The Daily Times

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) - Language is life, as life is language.

For the Dine', or the Navajo people, the language is symbolic of a lifestyle that has existed for generations.

''For one to truly be Dine', one must speak the language of the Dine','' Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said. ''Only in this way will one understand the songs, the prayers and ceremonies that have been passed down orally through countless generations of our people.''

When a recent survey revealed that only 5 percent of Navajo school-aged children could speak Navajo fluently, tribal leaders and educators began thinking about how to revitalize a language they consider the basis of Navajo identity.

In an effort to pass on the language to young Navajo children, many elementary schools across the reservation offer Navajo immersion classes.

Roz Ulibarri began teaching the classes at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School in Upper Fruitland about nine years ago.

Each year, Roz said she has no more than 10 students in kindergarten through sixth grade who understand, respond to and speak Navajo.

''The comprehension is there,'' she said. ''The usage is not.''

As each class begins, the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Navajo. Some of the classes then review the Navajo alphabet, which has 32 consonants - 10 that aren't in the English alphabet.

At the University of New Mexico, Navajo language classes have been offered for 35 years, but the university does not have a linguistics department devoted to Navajo.

Sherman Wilcox, chairman of UNM's linguistics department, said he is hopeful that will change during the upcoming legislative session with a bill that would provide funding for such a department.

Like other languages worldwide, the Navajo language has its roots in mythology. Early Navajos considered it a gift from the ''Holy People'' who lived among them.

The Holy People, equivalent to the Holy Ghost in Christianity, gave the Navajo people the language to help them overcome adversaries, said Darrell Tso, a Navajo and student adviser at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Influences from a larger English-speaking society, such as TV, music, and video games, have been blamed for a decrease in the use of the language.

However, a larger influence could be the learning pattern expected in English-speaking societies versus a traditional Navajo society, Tso said.

In the American school system, pupils are expected to form an opinion and respond verbally when spoken to.

''You have to ask questions,'' he said. ''You have to use that word, 'why.'''

But in Navajo, he said, asking questions is not valued.

''It means you're not a good learner,'' he said. ''You're not being attentive to what's being said.''

As a result, Navajo elders might appear to be impatient in teaching the Navajo language.

Ramona Yazzie, 26, said she feels embarrassed because she doesn't speak fluent Navajo.

''You don't know?'' she said her family members ask her. ''It's embarrassing because I should know more.''

The embarrassment Yazzie feels also might be a result of the American style of teaching, Tso said. When a Navajo parent or grandparent instructs the younger people in a perceived harsh manner, Tso said the elders are teaching them how to take criticism.

Young people want to respond with words rather than contemplate what the elders say, Tso said.

Candace Toledo, 21, of Kirtland, who also doesn't speak Navajo, said kids aren't encouraged to learn the language.

''All we do is get criticized and older adults don't know it hurts,'' she said.

Though differences between Navajo and American teaching methods might be cumbersome to teaching the Navajo language, one way to avoid the conflict is teaching Navajo within the family.

''Children learn languages best when they learn in the home,'' Wilcox said.

Teaching Navajo during childhood also helps children understand the lessons offered in Navajo, said Harry Walters, director of the Ned Hatathli Museum and Navajo culture instructor at Dine' College in Tsaile, Ariz.

''If you are taught in Navajo, you learn to comprehend what the meaning of the teaching is, the observation,'' he said.

Walters said he fears for the future of the language, mainly because when he talks to students in the way his grandfather talked to him, they don't understand.

''It's like I'm talking about King Arthur or Peter Pan,'' he said. ''What we're talking about [in culture] is not real; it's not relevant to our life today. They can't make that correlation.''