I wish someone would help me. Please?
I chose this phrase in Diné Bizaad (the Navajo Language) as the headline for this post for two reasons, namely to breathe some life into the group once again and, secondly, to tell you I cannot do this alone.
When this group was organized some time ago, it’s intention, I believe, was to foster a colloquium to address the need for active interest in indigenous languages near and far, as a network of support and scholarship in the ever evolving realm of language work in indigenous communities and also a place to showcase individual development and projects.
We have failed at these goals thus far in myriad ways, but like any good idea or intention, it is never too late to begin again.
Incidentally, I write this post from the Navajo Nation library in Tségháhoodzání, Hozdo (Window Rock, Arizona). As I sit here, I can hear and see the Navajo Language alive, but not well. In the office behind me, a librarian is gossiping in fast Navajo to her younger sister. She is complaining about her daughter’s boyfriend’s habit of walking around in only his boxer shorts and scratching himself until noon everyday. At a nearby desk, an older man whom I will call Fred (because he seems like a Fred) is talking to his wife about tonight’s dinner menu: dibé at’sí (mutton) and ch’ééh jiyáán (watermelon). He seems rather pleased by the prospect of this meal. I am at once hungry and envious. Twenty feet away, a conference regarding a conference is being conducted in crisp Navajo and the occasional English interjection while a powerpoint presentation hangs ghostly against the back wall . A few tables away, two young woman about my age or younger are sharing earphones and watching a video on YouTube. Their whispers are carried through the space in a mess of English, giggles, and the occasional word or two in Navajo. This seems to be a very broad, albeit precise representation of the current dynamics of the Navajo Language: A generation of older adults effortlessly conversing, and a younger generation with only a hint of their ancestral tongue instilled.
However, within this din of the language jungle, I was quite surprised to discover a young girl, approximately three years old according to her grandmother, speaking only Navajo with an occasional English word jumbled here or there. After speaking with bimasaní (her maternal grandmother) for a few moments, I learned this girl’s parent’s had left her in the care of the mother’s mother and had moved away. Masaní (grandma) told me it was hard keeping up with her granddaughter because her leg’s are not what they use to be, but she insists in speaking to the girl in Navajo until she enters school in a few years. I was shocked to find such a sight: a little girl who spoke hardly a word of English. All at once, I as amazed and hopeful. Not because this small girl was largely unexposed to English (although my own angst would call this a win for the ages), but because her grandmother recognizes the importance of sharing this knowledge with her. I would imagine this to be quite a great gift to give to any child. As Masaní and I spoke, I noticed the little girl had her eye on the small bag of strawberries next to my computer. So, I turned, picked up the berries and kneeled down in front of her with the bag open and said, “Da’ shídeezhi dah woozh yishdeeł holo? (Sister, would you like a strawberry?)” Her understanding eyes, went from the bag to her grandmother, who said only, “Niina’ awee’ (Take it baby).” Without hesitating she grabbed one and calmly said, “Ahe’hee shinaaí (thank you, brother).” As she and grandma walked away, it reminded me of the hard task each of us has ahead to protect and recover the sacred, spoken or otherwise. It is a something worth fighting for, but more importantly, it is something which cannot be done alone.
Shíká ‘analyeed laanaa dooleeł? Will you help me?