A Navajo Speaker Says The Language Connects Her With Her Culture

Jul 25, 2015
Originally published on July 25, 2015 7:55 am

Should the president of the Navajo Nation be required to speak fluent Navajo?

The Navajo Nation held a referendum on that question this week, and the majority voted no.

The vote was victory for supporters of a Navajo presidential candidate who was disqualified last fall because he didn't speak the language fluently. The next Navajo Nation election is in 2018.

Advocates say loosening the language requirement will enable the younger candidates, who are less likely to speak the language, to run for Navajo president. Opponents say the change will weaken the Navajo culture.

"Language and culture ties in together," says Jessica Dodson, 23, a Navajo who speaks the language fluently. "You cannot separate them."

Dodson tells NPR's Scott Simon that she believes the nation should keep the language requirement. She works at a senior center, where she says she speaks Navajo every day.

"I see a lot of our younger generation having cell phones, playing video games, watching TV," she says. "They're not really going out there into the community and showing themselves that they do care about saving our language and our culture."


Interview Highlights

On the connection between language and culture

When I go to a traditional ceremony, I observe, I participate, and I notice that there is about 90 percent [of our] elderly are in there because they were brought up with it. As years went on, their grandkids are not really interested in it due to no one advocating it, [no one] telling them, "Come in ... listen to these songs, it will brighten your spirits, it will refresh your mind and soul." No one is doing that. They just think it's some sort of ritual that they don't have to take part [in]. But it's who they are. They should carry it on, is what I strongly believe.

On why the Navajo president should speak the language

This Navajo Nation president represents us to the country, to different states. They have to know that this leader is representing not only himself but his people, the whole Navajo tribe, showing them, my people know their language, know their culture, know where they're coming from.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Should the president of the Navajo nation have to speak Navajo? Tribal referendum was held on that question this week. Navajos voted no. Last fall, the candidate for the tribal presidency was disqualified because he didn't speak Navajo fluently. Advocates say that loosening the language requirement will enable younger generations of Navajo to run. They're less likely to speak the native language. Opponents say the change could weaken the Navajo community. We're joined now from the Navajo nation by Jessica Dodson. She is 23 years old and fluent in Navajo. Ms. Dodson, (speaking Navajo).

JESSICA DODSON: Yes, (speaking Navajo).

SIMON: May I ask, how did you vote on Tuesday?

DODSON: I voted against.

SIMON: You voted against loosening the language requirement.

DODSON: Yes.

SIMON: Why?

DODSON: Mainly, the reason why is because I, personally, am fluent in Navajo.

SIMON: Yeah.

DODSON: I practice the Navajo language on a daily basis. Speaking Navajo language encourages me to help my elders and my community because I work at a local senior center. So every day I have to be able to communicate with them.

SIMON: Why do you think, Ms. Dodson - you're only 23 yourself - why a lot of young Navajo apparently aren't learning the language, or at least using it?

DODSON: I believe that, due to the advancement of technology, I see a lot of our younger generation having cell phones, playing video games, watching TV and they're not really going out there into the community and showing themselves that they do care about saving our language and our culture.

SIMON: And you see saving - keeping the Navajo language alive as being part of keeping your culture alive. You don't...

DODSON: Yes.

SIMON: You don't think that they're young Navajo who can't learn about the culture - observe traditions - without learning the language?

DODSON: Language and culture ties in together. You cannot separate them. For example, when I go to a traditional ceremony, I observe, I participate, and I notice that there is - about 90 percent elderlies are in there because they were brought up with this. And as years went on, their grandkids are not really interested in it due to no one advocating, telling them come in, sit in the hogan, listen to these songs. It will brighten your spirit. It will refresh your mind and soul. And no one's doing that. They just think it's some sort of ritual that they don't have to take part of but it's who they are. They should carry it on, is what I strongly believe.

SIMON: Yeah, and you think that therefore it's a good idea to make this a requirement for someone who would be the president of the Navajo nation.

DODSON: Yes, because this Navajo nation president represents us to the country, to different states. They have to know that this leader here is representing not only himself, but his people - the whole Navajo tribe - showing him, my people know their language, know their culture, know where they're coming from. I mean, that's what that person represents.

SIMON: Jessica Dodson of the Navajo nation. Thanks so much for being with us.

DODSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.