While Spring Break 2022 came and went for many, Diné College Libraries welcomed local area Diné language instructors and learners to participate in its Navajo Language Learning Resources Forum series. The series originates from the 2021 Diné College Virtual Navajo Language Immersion Camp, during a session with Diné language faculty, Roger Benally, titled Amá dóó Azhé’é Bina’nitin. During this session, participants raised the issue of Navajo language learning resources - more specifically, the issue with locating and accessing them. One participant asked why there wasn’t a central library or directory for them. Others voiced concern about the inability to widely share self-made resources that instructors created. It was from this conversation that Diné College Libraries based its Navajo Language Resources Forum series with the help of the Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries grant.
The series had three sessions, each with one guest to speak on a topic related to Navajo language. In the first session, Council Delegate Nathaniel Brown gave a talk on the current initiatives of the 24th Navajo Nation Council to build Diné language capacity, including making the Navajo language the official language of the Navajo Nation, encouraging filmmaking in Navajo, centralizing teaching materials for Diné Bizaad teachers and learners, and supporting projects such as Navajo Sesame Street, Diné Bizaad Podcasts, language apps, and signage. In the second session, community-based Diné language instructor Valencia Edgewater demonstrated a song-based language activity (Łį́į́’ Biyiin, or "Horse Song") using the Google classroom platform. The focus of the session was open-sourced language education tools. In the third session, Navajo Sovereignty Institute Executive Director and poet/playwright Rex Lee Jim spoke about the importance of publishing in Diné Bizaad to perpetuate our language and encourage creative expression exclusively in the Navajo language. Reading from his own poetry and creative works, Mr. Jim rejects the notion of publishing bilingually in English and Navajo for the sake of sales; that publishing exclusively in Diné Bizaad is for the continuity of Navajo. Following each talk, participants engaged in discussion on the broad themes in the session for over an hour. At the end of each session, we held a drawing for promotional prizes including a tote bag and a beverage tumbler with the library’s logo and the event’s promotional Navajo Language Resources word cloud graphic on it.
The start of the first session opened with a question on how the pandemic affected Navajo language teaching and learning. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue of online language learning and sparked renewed discussion among Navajo language teachers and students at the college and in the broader community about Diné language and cultural instruction in virtual environments. The opening response to this question was very grounding, as it put an emphasis on the importance of Diné Bizaad for hope and healing amidst the worst days of the pandemic. One participant, a Navajo language educator, described his own excruciating experience with the virus and in his darkest moments, sang and prayed on Facebook in Diné Bizaad. Many thanked him on social media for his words and stated that it was a comfort for them as they endured their own battles with the virus and isolation. While there are those that state that prayers and songs have no place on social media, the Diné language is a core component of our identity; we lost many elders during the pandemic and it created a mode of desperation, where we need the language everywhere, including online, in order to keep it alive.
In response to a question about the what language initiatives appealed to participants, many brought attention to resources that they found helpful. The Saad K’idilyé language nest based in Albuquerque, NM was suggested as a model that could be adapted and brought to the Navajo Nation. A local English teacher talked about the adaptation of non-English languages in her classroom and praised partners such as Iiná baa Hózhǫ́. She emphasized the importance of incorporating and inviting local knowledge holders and speakers from the community to support Navajo language instruction across all disciplines. In speaking about podcasts, another participant stated that she would like Navajo language podcasts to discuss contemporary issues such as the pandemic and election in dual Navajo-English languages and explain processes to young people such as the local government system. Her suggestion stems from the fact that young people feel isolated and alienated from participating in local government because of their inability to fluently speak Navajo.
The day’s session closed with a discussion about Navajo language resources in the library - what would the ideal language library look like? What would a virtual one look like? The first response focused on an ongoing issue within tribal library settings: organization. One participant emphasized the importance of categorizing language and terminology by life stage and by ceremony. While many are hesitant to use ceremonial language in a non-ceremonial setting or even discuss it outside of a ceremonial setting at all, "We shouldn’t close these off because we’ll see a drastic shift in our language and these terms and ways of speaking need to be retained." The participant went on to explain that such a library should also be organized in a way that lets young people know the protocols of each set of terminology – what can be used in what setting and what can’t. That, "we are at a point where we can’t hoard information." Another participant, a retired Navajo language instructor with Diné College, stated that materials need to be duplicated and circulated all over the libraries on the reservation, big and small - not just in Window Rock (where the Navajo Nation Library and Museum - a central repository of Navajo materials - are located). The participant also brought up the issue with media formats and how they’ve changed over time and how conversion, preservation, and perpetuation need to be invested in. Her closing statements also called for accountability and renewed trust building because of mistrust of the library due to past mismanagement and disposal of precious language materials by non-Navajo librarians. Closing the day’s discussion, Diné language educator David Delmar talked about Nihinéé’, a language activity insert in the Navajo Times, which he writes with Diné College’s Navajo Sovereignty Institute Executive Director, Rex Lee Jim. Nihinéé’ is his effort to contribute to language utilization and education; Delmar encourages everyone to put in the personal effort: "All of this is self-taught. If a person has the initiative, if a person is willing to learn it, [they] can learn it without formal teaching, without formal instruction."
Following Ms. Edgewater's learning activity demonstration using song, the conversation kicked off with a question about the use of songs in Navajo language learning. The first participant commented that while song is important to learning Diné Bizaad, it is incredibly difficult to adapt original songs that capture the sounds of Diné ceremony in a way that can be used to teach children. "To teach them the correct sounds of our language means to teach the traditional songs. It’s difficult to create songs that belong to our own traditional melodies," he commented. The participant acknowledged that this is something that has to be overcome because the alternative is learning intertribal songs that aren’t Diné. Another participant stated that we need to pass on traditional ceremonial songs, no matter what, as they connect us back to our families and our culture. She stated that songs connect her to her parents and cultural activities and ceremonies that she cherishes. Another language teacher stated that he was hesitant to use songs because of parents’ objections to cultural components and tried to adapt songs to popular melodies (like "The Wheels on the Bus" to doing house chores), but that there was concern over copyright permissions. There is agreement that the focus should shift to the sacredness of the songs, but there are objections to using traditional songs in the classroom setting. A long time Diné College faculty and language teacher stated, "You can’t restrict language," therefore songs can be used to teach anything and can be adapted. Repetition through song helps children learn, especially with verbs. Mr. Delmar, creator of the Nihinéé’ language activity, agreed that songs can be used to teach regular verbs and that permissions are granted for adapting songs through the public domain.
When asked about the use of open sourced tools to teach and learn Diné Bizaad, participants identified popular content platforms such as Youtube, Tik Tok, and Instagram. They also mentioned language activities using PowerPoint and Google classroom (the topic of day’s presentation). Ms. Edgewater pointed out that one of the biggest barriers to wide utilization of these tools was the fact that broadband is still very much limited on the reservation and that accessibility is still a problem for many learners across the reservation. On the topic of accessibility, when asked about the cost barriers to learning Diné Bizaad, many identified time and the cost of technology as the biggest barriers to learning. Many instructors stated that cost of materials was a problem for them but also stated that those costs often transfer to the student when they must reproduce materials for themselves.
In wrapping up the session’s discussion, when asked about what collaborative efforts can be done among content creators, instructors were in agreement about the need for a platform (perhaps something like Dropbox) where content creators can upload their materials to share. There was also agreement among instructors that many language teachers - including teachers of other world languages such as Spanish and French - often largely create their own materials, something that is unavoidable as a language instructor.
Although the third session was not originally planned, the overall theme of the session - Navajo language books - came from the strong association of books with libraries and how Diné communities factored books into their language learning. There are many Navajo language textbooks, bilingual books, and readers, however there are many people who scoff at the idea that books written in Navajo - a language that never had a writing system - contribute toward any kind of fluency attainment. The session’s speaker, Mr. Rex Lee Jim, a poet and playwright, begs to differ on that account and is adamant that the Navajo Nation establish its own culture of publishing exclusively in Navajo. Mr. Jim, who is the former Vice President of the Navajo Nation, hataałii, and attended Princeton and Oxford is at odds with mainstream publisher’s insistence that Navajo language books be Navajo-English bilingual in order to reach wider audiences (and thus make more money).
Following Mr. Jim’s talk and poetry reading, participants were asked to talk about Navajo language books and their influence on learning the language. The first participant talked about his K-12 experience with learning Navajo and how intermittent the lessons were. By the time he graduated high school, he’d forgotten everything. Upon graduating and leaving high school he took with him a Navajo language textbook, which he hangs on to and reviews repeatedly, trying to teach himself more and to work on Navajo vowels. Other participants agreed that even though they may not speak fluently, seeing Diné Bizaad’s presence in everyday life in signs and on buildings is important since they see them and then repeat them to themselves. While people doubt the written word’s ability to teach them fluency, there’s no doubt that its constant presence reminds them to practice and ingrain it every single day. This desire to create Diné Bizaad’s presence everywhere was voiced by another participant, who works in marketing with the college. She expressed her wish that there were more resources on modern terminology for technology concepts, as she desired to make marketing materials in the Navajo language. Whenever she does, she must consult repeatedly with family members about the accuracy of her translations and how to say certain things, like webinar, zoom meeting, etc. A long time faculty member at the college stated that books in Navajo were important to him when he first started teaching. He read about stories he’d never heard before and learned much about the culture of various regions of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation covers a wide geographic area and each region has its own variation of Diné cultural beliefs and dialects. Unless someone interacts with someone else from that region or travels there, they wouldn’t know them. The young woman in marketing emphasized the importance of Navajo language keyboards so that people can communicate these stories across regions and spaces through technology.
In wrapping up the conversation, when asked about the belief that one cannot learn Diné Bizaad through a book, a community participant commented that, "A lot of our children are embarrassed to speak Navajo because they’re afraid they’re not saying it right. We still need books and recordings to help them learn." A big point of hesitancy to speak or read aloud Navajo words is the fear of mispronunciation and of being reprimanded for it. To overcome this, the Diné language faculty suggested starting with reclaiming and teaching the proper pronunciation of places. He called back to a point Mr. Jim made in his talk that place names are sacred as they’re attached to us and are a part of our identity. One of the last thoughts of the session was concerning the effect of making the Navajo language the official language of the Navajo Nation, where it would appear everywhere, in legal documents, and in schools - where it would be mandatory to use - "It would be difficult at first, but it would be a great opportunity to start investing in it."
The Navajo Language Resources Community Forum series was made possible by the Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries. Diné College Libraries is thankful to the American Library Association and the Association for Rural and Small Libraries for making this opportunity possible. We are also thankful to all of our speakers for their time and sharing their expertise with us and their community. Finally we thank Ms. Sarah H. Adeky, who served as a consultant and co-facilitator for this event; thank you for your hard work! Ahxéhee’ Nitsaago T’áá Nołtsoh!!