The Navajos are indigenous to America. They migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska. However, recent genetic studies have shown that they are Asiatic in origin and have strong DNA links to China. There are also linguistic evidence that ties their language to China and historical evidence to corroborate that the Navajos and Chinese communicated with each other in 1421 which predates Columbus’ time of discovery of the Americas in 1492. In addition, there is a strong theory that suggests that a small group of an advanced culture migrated here in 1233 A.D. to escape Genghis Khan and were forced to become hunters and gatherers. This small group which survived is now known as the Apache and Navajo.
The Navajo people occupy the land between what they consider the four sacred mountains: Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, and Mount Hesperus. They occupy territories in the four corners: Utah, Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Oral accounts contend that Navajos and Pueblos had a long relationship of trade and exchanges of practices and knowledge between groups and other tribes. When the Spanish arrived and entered Navajo territory in 1583 they claimed their resources, their land, and labor.
The Spanish introduced sheeps and goats which transformed Navajo culture from hunters and gathers to sheep herding. Sheeps and goats became their main source of food. In addition, the introduction of horses also changed their culture. This allowed them to become formidable warriors to protect their homeland and expand their territory.
When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico claimed Navajo land as their own. War, raiding and enslavement of Navajos were common during that period. When Mexico lost the war with the U.S. in 1848, the treaty of Guadalupe was signed and Mexico ceded land to the U.S. which included Navajo land. Under General James Carleton military actions that destroyed lives, crops, livestock and dwellings were taken. This forced Navajo groups into starvation which then led to their surrender. Navajos were forced into internment at Fort Defiance in 1863. During 1864, in what is known as the Long Walk in which over nine-thousand men, women, and children were forced to walk for over three hundred miles to Fort Sumner for internment at Bosque Redondo, thousands of Navajos died due to shortage in food supplies and spread of diseases. In 1868, a treaty was negotiated between Navajo leaders and the American federal government that allowed the Navajos to return to a reservation that was only a portion of their former homeland. This treaty was known as the Treaty of Bosque Redondo.
War and peace seemed to be a pattern between Navajos and outside groups. Issues over land and resources shifted from the Spanish, to Mexico, and then to the U.S. In 1921, a Navajo Tribal Council was created. In 1968, the Tribal Council declared the reservation as Navajo Nation.
Currently, great strides have been made to gain back their sovereignty in the true essence of the word. The Navajo Nation is slowly making efforts to become independent again, free from economic dependency on the U.S. Some Navajo government officials predict that perhaps in about twenty to thirty years they will have established true sovereignty in which they can sustain their way of life independently from the U.S.
In sum, Navajo migration seem to be a result of constant persecution of other groups in search of resources, land, and or labor. Since they are not considered immigrants, I have given a brief account of their origin, their migration (movement), the reasons for it, and the most prominent hardships they experienced.
Educational Experiences in the Country
Navajos were forced to go to boarding school on and off the reservations.
They were punished if they spoke their native language. Because of this, as they grew up they did not pass on their native language to their children for fear that their children would be punished as well. Great efforts were made to prevent Navajos from speaking their native tongue and practicing their cultural traditions. The objective of the school in the past was to assimilate Natives, to make them become white Americans not only in language, but also in practice, in culture, and in appearance. The schools did not have adequate food, there was overcrowding, inadequate medical services, under-educated teachers, strict discipline, and manual kitchen labor were forced on the children to help sustain the school. It was very difficult and traumatic for most Navajo children attending these schools.
In 1968, “Navajo Community College,” was the first college established by Native Americans for Native Americans. It is currently called Diné College. In recent years, there has been a strong effort in reviving the Navajo language among its members, especially with the younger generation. Most children K-12 go to either boarding schools on the reservation or schools outside the reservation. One of my interviewees has kids that attend school off the reservation and therefore are in a U.S. school system, specifically in Page, Arizona. One of her concerns, which is also an issue of concern in some ELL students, is that her third child was not assessed properly and as a result was retained for a grade. The reason given to her by educators is that her son’s reading did not meet grade level due to interference from his second language. Her case is unique in that her first language, along with that of her children, is English and she did not understand the reasoning for his retainment. My other interviewee expressed concerns about quality teaching/education and the lack thereof. I think this concern is common in the education field in general. He also expressed his concerns about outdated buildings and lack of materials for the students.
Gender interaction is equal in the Navajo community especially with the younger generation and especially within the classroom context. Generally, teachers are respected and it seems even more so in bilingual schools in which they are perceived as elders who have great knowledge in passing on traditions, their native language, and cultural knowledge. The policy on homework is the same as in U.S. schools. Schools that are both located on and off the reservation seem to still have acculturation as their agenda. However, as I mentioned earlier, there is a mission to increase their native linguistic skills in order to preserve their cultural identity.
There are immersion programs in elementary schools which have been established since 1987 in order to revitalize the Navajo language. Creation stories and myths are integrated into their language teachings through song. Implications for a classroom is that the students are taught that they have the ability to learn Navajo and that it is something that they can be proud of while progressing in western society. This also enables them to function in both worlds.
I think that the Navajo experience is unique in that, for most of the current population, their first language is English (as with the case of one of my interviewee). They are learning their native language as a second language to preserve their identity. My interviewee expressed that she is sometimes embarrassed when speaking with her husband, who is fluent in Navajo, for fear of being ridiculed. She also conveyed that she only speaks Navajo with her husband and family and that she is uncomfortable and feels awkward speaking it to others in her community.
Language Characteristics Between the Language Spoken and English
Athabaskan is an indigenous language family in North America. There are three main groups of this language family and they are: Northern, Pacific Coast, and Southern (or Apachean). Native speakers identify it as Dené. Navajo falls under Southern Athabaskan along with six groups of Apache languages. The Southern Athabaskan languages are mainly spoken by Native Americans living in the southwestern part of the U.S.
The Navajo language has a large phoneme inventory which includes uncommon consonants that are not in the English language. It is a tonal language with three tones of high, rising, and falling. It has four basic vowels. The short vowels are as follows: a as in father, e as in west, i as in sit, and o as in low. The long/doubled vowels are held longer: aa as in say “aah,” ee as in yeah, ii as in see, and oo as in oh. The combined vowels are pronounced as follows: ai as in my, ao as in cow, ei as in say, and oi as in chewy.
Generally, Navajo speakers have a tenser articulation of all phonemes. Navajo b is similar to the English /p/ as in “spot.” Speakers may have trouble distinguishing between English /b/ and /b/ and may substitute their own b for both. Speakers also often substitute ʔ for final /p/ or /b/ sounds or to the Navajo d. Navajo d is similar to the English /t/ in “stop.” It is like a cut off /t/ sound in English and is often substituted by the Navajo speaker for initial positions in English /t/ or /d/. In final positions Navajo d, ʔ, or ʔd are substituted for /t/ or /d/ in English. Navajo t, has no English equivalent. Navajo k is more aspirated than the English /k/. Final English /k/ is replaced by Navajo ʔ. Navajo g is similar to English /k/. Navajo ch is more aspirated than English /ch/, along with Navajo ts. Navajo j is voiceless while its English counterpart is voiced, and at times the Navajo j is substituted for both /ch/ and /j/ between vowels. Navajo tl and dl have no phonemic correspondence in English. There are no correspondence for /f/, /v/, and /θ/. Navajo d may be substituted for /θ/ and /ð/.
Its word order is subject-object-verb, but there are some speakers that use “noun ranking.” This means that nouns are ranked into three categories: humans, animals, and inanimate objects and then ranked by strength, size, and intelligence. Whichever has a higher ranking comes first in the word order. Some linguist consider Navajo to be a discourse configurational language in which word order is determined by pragmatic factors depending on context. This is highly contrastive to English’s subject-verb-object order.
It has both agglutinative and fusional elements. For its agglutinative elements this means that verb information such as tense, mood, and speaker-listener relationship are added to the end of the verb. Words are in a linear sequence of distinct morphemes with each morpheme having its own component of meaning. This is contrastive to English which uses auxiliaries to express verb meaning. For its fusional elements this means that there are tendencies to use a single morpheme plus affixes to express grammatical, syntactic, or semantic changes. Because a considerable amount of information is conveyed in the verb, nouns are not required to form a complete sentence in the Navajo language.
The Navajo language is highly complex and for brevity’s sake I have only given a few of the more prominent contrastive features between the Navajo language and English. A more extensive analysis can be read via the link provided in the reference section.
Values and Beliefs
Navajos believe in many deities (polytheism) and in a variety of supernatural powers. According to their creation myth, all of existence is divided between the Holy People (the supernaturals) and the Earth Surface People. The Holy People had to pass through three underworlds, each of which were destroyed by a flood, until they reached the fourth world–the Glittering World. Here First Man and First Woman were created, they are the ancestors of all the Earth Surface People. The Earth Surface People were left with knowledge necessary for their survival by the Holy People who then went on to other realms, but still oversee the Earth Surface People to make sure that ceremonies and taboos are observed in order to maintain harmony with them. The most important idea that is pursued by the Navajos is this condition of harmony and being in balance with the supernatural powers. This is known as hozoji.
Implications for this in education can be a creative way to strengthen oral and writing skills in a relatable and meaningful context. Navajo myths can also be used to recognize the importance of their beliefs and culture thereby helping them to form and maintain their cultural identity; thus, helping to promote a positive and accepting environment that is conducive to learning.
Linked to this is the belief that all illness and/or misfortunes result from a transgression against the supernaturals or from witchcraft by other humans. Therefore, medical practice is synonymous with ceremonial practices in which there is a particular ceremony to treat illnesses caused by either transgressions or witchcraft. In some cases, when a Navajo is sick, they will seek help from a traditional Navajo medicine man who is a qualified individual bestowed with supernatural powers to diagnose and treat a person’s illness. One of the person I interviewed is said to be a medicine man in his community and at times is called upon to perform ceremonies and rituals either for events or for illness. Some ceremonies are also used for blessings and traditional rites of passage. For this reason, ceremonies are highly important to their values and beliefs.
Some taboos and norms that I discovered from my interview is that it is taboo to speak about death and the dead. In addition, fallen hair or hair from haircuts must be burned so that it cannot be used for witchcraft. Therefore, if you are in someone’s house, it is very important that you are mindful of your hair and that if they fall out you must gather them and dispose of them properly; under no circumstance are they to be left. It is a social norm to acknowledge everyone that is present in your company including babies. You must shake everyone’s hand to show respect and acknowledgement. It is also a social norm to not let your guests leave on an empty stomach. You must feed them before their departure. Navajos are very hospitable and believe in an open door policy in which they welcome everyone, including strangers.
I will now address cultural orientation between Navajo and American. Navajo is traditionally a collectivist culture in which family and community members are valued and regarded as part of the group. Members of the family or the clan are responsible for how individuals behave. However, there has been evidence of a transition into adapting individualistic perceptions. It is said that Navajo begin events late and end up going for a long duration of time. Navajo perception of time is circular. Missed events are perceived to happen again and is therefore not given any concern. Navajo life is arranged by completing tasks and/or events. Value and importance is expressed by staying until the interaction between its members is complete and/or when the task is complete. It is highly rude to constantly be checking on the time and looking at your watch or to be abrupt and disclose that you must leave because by doing so, you did not allow the social interaction to take its natural course of completion. Navajo social organization is linked to kinship and residence. Traditionally, men and women have specific roles concerning obligations towards family and in-laws. In the past, tribal chiefs were responsible for their clans and an assembly of chiefs made up a council. Political organization instituted in 1923 modeled American institutions in democracy rather than their aboriginal traditions. There is an elected tribal chairman and vice chairman with a Tribal Council consisting of elected chapter leaders who make decisions for the community.
Navajos have an open work ethic. Work is done with a distinct purpose. Implications for this is that a strict schedule of busy work just for the sake of working should be avoided in education. In addition, schoolwork must demonstrate an immediate and authentic purpose. Patience in social situations is demonstrated to express respect for individuals or group in order to reach a consensus decision. Implications for this is that students should not be expected to make quick decisions or quick responses without deliberations. Quietness is valued and demonstrated when individuals are uncomfortable or upset. It is a form of interpersonal etiquette. Mutualism among members of the group promote solidarity. Given this, cooperation is valued over personal gain. Implications for this is that strategies must be modified by integrating collaborative activities where students are equal with each other and activities that are competitive within the class. Other values or norms include only expressing your thoughts or opinions when asked. For the most part, it is best to not mingle in others’ affairs. Conversations must have a purpose like work. Thus, light conversations are not valued unless it is with very close members. In regards to social interaction, attention is given to affective instead of verbal communication. Implications for this is that you should avoid long series of rapid-fire questions or pressing the class for a group discussion. Native students are more comfortable with lectures or demonstrations. Given that observing, hearing, and memorizing were used to transfer knowledge via oral tradition, storytelling and experiential activities with emphasis on listening, observing, and speaking are effective strategies. Natives also have a holistic orientation. Therefore, presentation of educational material from a holistic perspective is highly recommended.
In sum, it is important for teachers to understand their students’ cultural belief system and values in order to best reach the students’ and meet their individual needs. I think it is also very important that as educators we do not dismiss or show disregard for our students’ belief system especially if it is different from our own. Doing so would create a gap/distance between student-teacher which then would be detrimental to their language acquisition. In addition, knowing your students’ value system would help promote a strong teacher-student connection that would be of great value.
Santa Ana, O. (2004). Tongue tied the lives of multilingual children in public education. USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.