Trump’s slur highlights the need to preserve native languages

Trump’s slur highlights the need to preserve native languages
© Getty Images

When I was forced into boarding school in Arizona I was one of the disobedient children who got their mouth washed by the dormitory aides many times for speaking my Dine or Navajo language.

As a result of this regular punishment, I often would chew a piece of bar soap to keep my mouth ready for what would come almost on a daily basis.

ADVERTISEMENT

My native language gave me peace, love and connection to my family during many lonely months in the cold dormitory halls.

 

It’s unfortunate today that Navajo youth are losing their language when it is no longer forbidden.

An estimated 30 percent of Navajo students in the 1st grade speak the Navajo language as opposed to 90 percent in the early 1940s. I estimate that less than half of all our youth speak the Navajo language today.

It was our language that helped the U.S. win World War II through the Code Talkers, who used language codes as an instrument to defeat the Japanese, Nazis and the Axis powers. The Code Talkers were honored this week at the White House for their service.  They stood proud and humble as the president used a racial slur to denigrate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren, Klobuchar call on FTC to curtail use of non-compete clauses Pollster says 'it's certainly not looking good' for Trump ahead of 2020 Big Tech is not the enemy, Sen. Warren MORE (D-Mass.). Such comments are no longer surprising from Trump who has continued to insult Warren with this slur that has been condemned by Native Americans.

To add insult to injury, Trump honored our people beneath a portrait of Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that led to the Trail of Tears.

Some may say that the Navajo people surrendered during the “long walk” but the truth is they bravely made sacrifices so that we would be here today. They expressed courage in indescribable ways when they could not speak the English language or stay on their land.

The best way we can fight stereotypes and racism is to ensure that our language and culture are preserved and respected.

Although our schools are highly encouraged to teach the Navajo Language, it is not a requirement. We also know from the Navajo Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey administered in collaboration with the Center of Disease Control that students who speak and practice their traditions were less likely to engage in risky behaviors that lead to morbidity and mortality such substance abuse and suicide.

So why doesn’t the Navajo Nation invest in engaging traditions and preserving language to grow resilient communities?

In most workplaces on the Navajo Nation, the Navajo language is a requirement or preferred.

The language requirement came up during our last presidential election on the Navajo Nation in 2014. A young candidate, Chris Deschene, was disqualified because he could not speak the language fluently. The voters tried to advocate for Deschene but the Navajo leaders deemed him unsuitable for Navajo Nation President.

But since the election, we have yet to hear of any concrete plans to preserve our Navajo language. Just like the Native staff who enforced the forbidden language rules in the dormitories, it was our own people who enforced the language criteria upon a young, vibrant, honorable young man who wanted to make changes on our nation. Although, I can speak fluently in Navajo, I did not learn to read and write the Navajo language, so I probably would be disqualified as well.

The Navajo Nation claims to be a sovereign nation, a tribal nation that governs itself but we know our government replicates the U.S. Government. This is evident in our school systems which are run by the State, Bureau of Education (BIE), and churches. The Navajo Nation does not operate a school, except for the Head Start Program, on the Navajo Nation. They do have a Department of Education which has loose oversight but no jurisdictions to make concrete changes. If the Navajo Nation operated their own schools, would language and tradition be the core component, or would we again follow mainstream educational bureaucracy?  

Many honorable leaders are nurtured with the Dine language, stories and values. We know this because when they run for council seats, their platforms are well intended with preserving Dine language and traditions. Messages of hope and inspirations are heard throughout the land about harnessing our values and traditions through our language.

It is easier said than done. Most people will say it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their children Navajo and it should be learned in the home. We must be reminded that most grandparents today are boarding school survivors whom may have been forbidden to speak their language so they have tugged the language so deep not to be reminded of the trauma. Therefore, they did not teach the language to their children who are parents today.

We know that to conquer one’s existence is to strip them of their language and way of life. The Navajo creation stories have been passed through our language, this should be the Navajo Nation’s top priority or that of every Native communities.

Instead of throwing around racial slurs during what was supposed to be honoring the Code Talkers; Trump could send the Navajo Nation funding to preserve the Navajo Language. He also could honor all Native Americans by listening to them and apologizing for trauma inflicted by the U.S. for centuries.

“Nihizaad taalai siliigo aaji nihoogha,” or “When the language becomes one, the world will end,” my grandmother would say.

This is one of the many stories told by the elders.

One elder stood by in a community meeting and said, “Tell us in our Dine language because it is clear, in another language it is like fog.”

With perseverance and patience as the keepers of our stories, we need to step up and preserve our Native language.  

Darlene Begay is a member of the Bitterwater Clan, of Red Mesa, Utah and is fluent in Dine.