Last month, Navajos passed a referendum that allows for the first time for a non-Navajo speaker to be president. The move, while political, sparked a dialogue among a community that sees its language threatened like never before. Some Navajos say the approval of the referendum represents a paradigm shift.
Beginning in the 1870s, the federal government tried to wipe out Native American culture and force tribes to assimilate to white civilization. Generations were relocated or forced to attend federally run boarding schools. Despite these efforts, many Navajos have held onto their language and culture.
"It’s a matter of self identity and it’s a matter of having pride in ourselves as native people," said Theresa Hatathlie who works with Dine Youth.
Hatathlie is passionate about the Navajo language. But she says not everyone feels that way. And -- out of perceived economic need -- many have replaced Navajo with English.
"I have individuals I have gone to school with they say, ‘I don’t want my kids to learn their language because they’re not going to ever get a job,'" Hatathlie said. "They’re not going to gain anything.’"
The referendum was an acknowledgement that more and more people see little value in the language. And it reflects deeper changes in the culture that may be irreversible.
When tens of thousands of people move off the reservation to go to school or find work, their language skills start to fade.
Clayson Benally used to speak Navajo fluently when he lived on the reservation. Then his family moved to Flagstaff, so his dad could find a job. Here he was sent to an English-only school.
"It was kind of frowned down that I spoke," Benally said. "And my accent used to be really thick. I used to be teased a lot. And unfortunately today I don’t speak."
Benally is worried about the long-term ramifications of this referendum and what it means for the tribe's culture.
"Our elders are truly our wisdom keepers," Benally said. "They have our traditional history, all the songs, the prayers, our ceremonies that make us Dine our way of life. And unfortunately every day an elder is passing...the richness, the vast history that each person carries a history from their own region that goes back generation upon generation. When one elder passes a piece of that puzzle is gone forever."
Like many, Benally is reluctant to practice Navajo with his father.
"I attempt something and you say it wrong and you get scolded," Benally said. "It can be terrifying for a lot of people. So I relate with a lot of youth. By trying you put yourself on a limb and you risk disapproval."
Navajo is a very difficult language. I attempted a beginner Navajo course. I used Rosetta Stone software developed as part of its endangered language project.
The difficulty of the language may explain why enrollment is so low in Northern Arizona University’s Navajo language courses.
"Spanish obviously in the southwest and all over the country is a useful language in almost any profession," said Patricia Frederick who chairs the global languages and cultures department. "And Navajo because it’s in such a limited area and added to that the difficulty of the language might make it less popular."
Adding to the problems is the issue of economic development in this struggling community. A recent study found a strong link between economic growth and the extinction of indigenous languages. Lead author Tatsuya Amano of the University of Cambridge told the BBC as economies develop the dominant language surroundings indigenous communities tends to take over. The study sadly suggests that to hold onto one’s language might in fact get in the way of better economic conditions.
Still, Navajo Council Delegate Jonathan Hale sees the language referendum as a wake-up call. He said it’s important for tribal members to ask each other the tough questions.
"What is it being Navajo?" Hale said. "What is Navajo to you? That language sets us apart. This is an issue we need to address."
Navajos will put the language referendum to the test in 2018 when they elect their next president. Former tribal leaders had to take the oath of office in Navajo. That will change if the next president doesn’t speak the language.
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