Why No Writing on the Rez?
An Inquiry into the History of Navajo Language Literacy
When I started to learn the Navajo language a couple years ago, I was surprised
to find almost no reinforcement available via the written word. There were
no newspapers, no comic books, no signs, no grafitti, and few books of any
sort. How can it be, I wondered, that this language of over 100,000 people,
living on their sovereign and historic homeland, with 60 years of alphabet
and 1000 years of culture, has found so little use in written form?
My investigation, which has only touched the surface of this complex issue,
led me through the history of the Navajos and their leaders, of Washington's
Indian policy, of Indian education, of Native American linguistics, and
even computer data standards. There are no simple answers, but the fact
that Navajos have had at least two long periods when their language was
literally beaten out of them by the dominant society is no doubt a major
factor in its poor health today. Another is, of course, the influence of
English languge radio, TV, and most recently the Internet, on the younger
From this inquiry two ideas have occured to me regarding possible future
action to improve the state of affairs:
--The Navajo government could give use of the written language higher priority,
namely by requiring bilingual signage on the reservation. Because such signs
are seen by people over and over during the course of daily activities,
they would stimulate interest in Navajo literacy and reinforce the oral
language, plus promote a valuable sense of identity and sovereignty in the
--More use can be made of the potential created by the computer revolution,
which does away with the age old "font" problem and makes it a
hundred times easier to publish things in Navajo. At the same time, action
should be taken to ensure Navajo can be easily displayed over the World
Wide Web, which is increasingly replacing paper information sources.
Absence of a Navajo Written Tradition
Pre-Columbian Navajos do not appear to have developed any written version
of their language. Although we can only speculate about the reasons for
this, a look at Navajo culture may provide some clues. Many of the purposes
for which other peoples first used writing are not important to the Navajo
way of life. There are no kings, no interest in memorializing the dead,
no urban societies with heirarchical governments, no highly organized religion.
The emphasis is on immediate kinship relations and individual action in
harmony with the world around one in the present, rather than communication
with a broader society or contemplation of the past or future.
Transmission over the generations of the knowledge and traditions of Navajo
culture was by oral means and direct demonstration, and even when visual
symbols were used, as in sand paintings, they were considered sacred and
destroyed after ceremonies. It's worth noting that these mechanisms seem
to have worked remarkably well up to now, with possibly only modest loss
of cultural content over many centuries (although some researchers believe
that large numbers of sacred chants have been forgotten).
In contrast, writing is an immensely important part of the white man's culture.
When the Spaniards came to Mexico, one of the first things they did was
to learn the local language, Nahuatl, and develop a Latin alphabet for it,
mainly to facilitate conversion to Christianity. In 1571 Molina published
a Nahuatl dictionary with nearly 24,000 entries. This was followed by many
other works, and the Indians quickly adopted the written language as well.
Unfortunately, by the time they conquered New Mexico, this interest had
died. In over 200 years of close contact, the Spanish seem to have made
no effort to learn or document the languages of the Navajo, Apache, or Pueblo
American Efforts at Forced Assimilation
When the Americans took over the Southwest in the 1840's, their primary
concern was to assure military control, and various army officers compiled
lists of useful Navajo words to promote this task, such as Lt. James H.
Simpson and Col. J. H. Eaton. Particularly important was the work of Dr.
Washington Matthews in the 1880's, who transcribed various Navajo religious
ceremonies and legends. From the turn of the century, missionary activity
by Catholics and various Protestant denominations on the reservation increased
rapidly, for the purpose of both education and conversion, and these groups
also made efforts to develop written Navajo, to help achieve their objectives.
Noteworthy contributions were the dictionary and grammars produced by the
Franciscan Fathers and Fr. Berard Haile.
Unfortunately each of these pioneers of written Navajo tended to invent
his own alphabet, so that even after many decades there was no standardized
way to represent the language. Nor did these efforts signify any recognition
of value in the Navajo culture or language. In fact, American government
policy for over 80 years up to the 1930's was exactly the opposite, namely
to eradicate Native American languages and culture as barriers to assimilation
into mainstream American society.
The primary tool used in this effort was education of the young Navajos.
These were compelled, often by force, to attend boarding schools both on
and off the reservation, with a view toward isolating them from all influences
of their tribe and culture. In particular, use of the Navajo language at
any time was forbidden and violations of this rule often invited corporal
punishment. Generations of Navajo leaders thus grew up being ashamed of
their language, and this became a significant obstacle later on to promoting
The New Deal Revolution, and its Failure
The 1920's witnessed a broad "reform" movement in American society,
which eventually also focussed on policy toward the Indians. This resulted
in the Meriam Report of 1928, which identified enormous failings in the
approach of the previous decades, but still did not explicitly touch the
language issue. Progress had to await the election of Franklin Roosevelt
several years later and the installation of John Collier as head of Indian
Affairs and Willard Beatty as head of Indian Education.
Collier was a reformer who thought that Indian culture had much to teach
white society, and set out to preserve it from extinction. Beatty was a
leader in Progressive Education movement and determined to shift from English-only
boarding schools to day schools and bilingualism. Together they hired John
Harrington, Robert Young, William Morgan, and Oliver LaFarge to create a
standard Navajo alphabet and begin publishing Navajo language materials.
Thus begain a first "golden age" for written Navajo. By 1939 the
new alphabet, a careful balance between linguistic precision and typeability,
was ready. The 1940's saw the publication of the first bilingual primers,
Navajo language children's books, a modern dictionary, and a monthly newsletter.
But Navajo literacy did not catch on. Collier's policies on livestock reduction
so angered the Navajos that they considered his educational approach suspect
as well. Certain Navajo leaders of the time, such as President J. C. Morgan,
educated in a Christian boarding school, opposed instruction of Navajo as
retrograde. WW II gutted the resources for Navajo education, while the many
thousands of Navajos who served in the armed forces or in defense industries
came back to the reservation more convinced than ever that learning English
had to be top priority for their children.
At the end of the 1940's, Federal Indian policy also shifted drastically
backwards. The 1948 "Long Range Program for Navajo Rehabilitation"
concluded that the Nation faced a serious economic crisis, so that large
numbers would have to move off-reservation and get work in the Anglo world,
and it recommended a switch back to boarding schools with stress on English
literacy. The cost of the support program was estimated at $90 million,
sentiment in Congress grew for "termination" of all reservations
(Joint Resoluton 108), and Navajos educated in the 1950's were again routinely
punished for speaking their native language in school and made to feel ashamed
of their culture.
The Great Society
The switch to a Democratic administration in Washington in the early 1960's
brought with it a de facto end to the "termination" pressure plus
a new emphasis on improving educational opportunities for all Americans,
including Indians. This time around, Navajo involvement in process was greatly
enhanced. Interest in bilingual teaching and materials creation revived
and the Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1967.
The new OEO providing funding for Head Start programs and for the first
Indian-directed, locally controlled school established at Rough Rock in
1966. Dine College, the first Indian community college, was set up in 1969.
These and the Rock Point Community School became major centers for promoting
the use of written Navajo. Independently during this period, Irvy Goossen,
a Canadian Mennonite missionary, published the first modern Navajo language
textbook for English speakers, Navajo Made Easier.
This was a second "golden age" for written Navajo: During 1966-1976,
over 130 titles of Navajo language children's literature were published.
Declining funding for Great Society programs and other problems apparently
led to a withering of activity, however. Only about 70 titles were published
in the next decade, and only 5 in the last half of the 80's.
Of considerable importance, however, was the publication of the complete
Bible in Navajo in 1985, and a 365-song Navajo language hymnal in 1979.
The wide availability of these books at reasonable cost makes it possible
that the most prevalent use of the written language today may well be in
connection with weekly Christian church services.
The Last Decade
During the most recent period, there appears to have been a renewed flowering
of Navajo language scholarship, in several different areas. Most important
in my view was the appearance of commercially published, paperback teaching
materials making both written and spoken Navajo accessible for a much wider
range of people and using modern methods (i.e. based on conversational paradigms
with audio tapes).
Other very positive developments included several pocket, normal-sized,
and picture dictionaries, a new edition of Young and Morgan's ultimate Navajo
reference, a pathbreaking practical study of the Navajo verb, a new bilingual
edition of Haile's Navajo Coyote Tales, an updated compilation of Navajo
place names, and the first bilingual map of the Navajo lands .
The Journal of Navajo Education, published by Round Rock School starting
in 1983, is a virtual gold mine of scholarship regarding the status and
future of written and oral Navajo, often reflecting in-depth studies by
academics such as Parsons-Yazzie, Reyhner, Lockard, and McLaughlin.
On the policy front, the U.S. Congress finally, after nearly 200 years,
formally recognized the error of trying to stamp out Native American languages.
In passing the Native American Languages Act of 1990 the Congress declared
its support for the use of Native languages as a medium of instruction and
recognized the right of Native American governing bodies to give official
status to their languages. Whether this legislation is able to make any
concrete contribution to preserving written or oral Navajo remains to be
Benefits of the Electronic Age
The invention in the early 1990's of computer word processing has revolutionized
the creation of text in Navajo and other languages with unusual characters.
Navajo computer fonts for Windows and the Mac were created during the 1990's
and are easily available. Anyone with a computer can now create, edit, and
publish Navajo written materials at a small fraction of the time and cost
of older methods.
With the massive shift of information retrieval from paper sources to the
Internet, mainly via use of "Web browsers," new opportunities
arise for the use of written Navajo. Never has it been potentially so easy
to make written Navajo texts available to a large number of people, both
within and outside the Nation.
Outlook for the Future
Of course, the other side of the "Electronic Age" coin is the
way in which this reinforces the dominance of English, especially among
children. The negative impact of TV on the Navajo language will likely be
substantially multiplied by that of the Internet in the years to come.
How serious is the decline of the oral language? The best statistics we
have are from comparing the 1980 and 1990 census data. These indicate that
over the 10 year period the proportion of Navajos aged 5-17 living on the
reservation who spoke only English rose from 12% to 28%. In 2000 it appears that the figure reached 43%.
Considering the significant number of Navajos living off the rez who rarely
hear the language, the future prospects must be seen as ominous for the
survival of spoken Navajo. Consequently the incentive for learning written
Navajo will likely continue to diminish.
It must also be remembered that the current generation of Navajo leaders
(including President Begaye) went to school during the 1950's and were usually
punished for speaking their own language -- they had it literally "slapped
out of them." Overcoming this legacy is no small matter. Nonetheless,
there are vigorous efforts by many more educated Navajos to reinstill appreciation
for the language in themselves and their children.
In the worst case scenario, Navajo could become a "lost language,"
in both oral and written forms, within a couple generations. Here are two
other possibilities that come to mind:
+Navajo could become like Latin before the 1970's "reform" of
the Catholic Church: Studied and written and spoken/sung fairly frequently,
but for religious and ceremonial purposes only. This would probably require
a very serious effort to record and publish Navajo ceremonies, which would
represent a break with the oral tradition and could meet with resistance.
+Navajo could become like the Celtic languages in Ireland, Scotland, and
Wales. In Ireland, for example, less than 1% of the population now speak
Irish as natives. But massive efforts to preserve the written language during
this century have kept it alive: All official signs are bilingual, with
the Irish version larger. All official documents are bilingual, and all
children learn Irish for several years in school. The Irish, like the Navajo,
went through a long period (until independence in 1917) when their language
was actively persecuted, and preserving it is seen as a critical component
of national identity and sovereignty.
I take it for granted that the Navajo Language is worth preserving, both
for the benefit of that Nation and for the benefit of mankind in general.
After 150 years it is even Washington's policy to promote this. Two ideas
come to mind with respect to written Navajo that I think should be considered:
1) There is everything to gain and nothing to lose by making the Navajo
language as visible as possible. While public authorities can only very
indirectly stimulate the production of books and periodicals, they have
considerable power regarding official signs. Why not implement bilingual
signage for all towns and government facilities and major geographical features
on the reservation?
Because people of all ages see official signs often and repeatedly, it is
a direct way of teaching Navajo writing, or at least inspiring curiosity
in it, to those not familiar with it. The mere visual presence of the language
demonstrates that pride should be taken in it, and that the Nation is a
sovereign one. (One could argue that its absence actually calls this into
question). The focus on geography reinforces the connection of the Navajo
to their land and the traditions that often tie a place to stories or legends.
At the end of this paper are some computer generated examples of the sort
of signs suggested.
2) Somehow a greater effort should be made to reap the potential benefits
of the electronic age, as described above. In Anglo society, every little
hobby club with two dozen members has a monthly newsletter created on computer
by volunteers with minimal cost and effort. It seems that it should be possible
to revive the concept of a Navajo language periodical like the one that
existed in the 1940's and 50's.
Equally important is to take steps to make it possible to easily convey
Navajo via the Internet. To accomplish this, browsers like Netscape and
Internet Explorer have to be configured to decode Navajo text: That is,
they must render the numbers generated by keystrokes into the appropriate
Navajo letters. If this is not done, it is not readible.
This is complicated but not an impossible project: My copy of Netscape already
decodes for over a dozen languages. The international Unicode organization
has already encoded all the characters and diacritical marks needed for
Navajo. It it just a matter of having software and computers modernized
so they can fully use such a system. (2000)
Postscript 2004: The technology changes mentioned above have occurred. Current Mac and Windows machines, OS's, and many applications now support Unicode and the combining diacritics needed for Navajo. There is effectively no barrier to the easy use of written Navajo on the internet, other than the continued use of much older equipment. For some examples see this site:
Navajo on the Web.
Navajo Literacy Milestones
1849: First Navajo word list, in Journal of a Military Reconnaissance...,
by Lt. James H. Simpson.
1852: First Navajo vocabulary, Vocabulary of the Language of the Navajo,
by J. H. Eaton.
1887: Washington Matthews begins publishing Navajo ceremonies.
1912: First major dictionary, A Vocabulary of the Navajo Language, by the
1926: First grammar, A Manual of Navajo Grammar, by Fr. Berard Haile.
1939: Harrington-LaFarge alphabet created
1941: First bilingual primer, Dine Yazhi Ba'alchini
1941: First compilation of place names, Dine Bikeyah, by Richard F. Van
1943: First modern dictionary, The Navajo Language, Grammar, and Dictionary,
by Robert W. Young and William Morgan.
1943: First monthly newsletter, Adahooniligii.
1956: Navajo translation of New Testament completed.
1966-70: Rough Rock Demonstration School, Rock Point Community School, and
1967: First modern Navajo textbook, Navajo Made Easier, by Irvy W. Goossen
1976: Native American Materials Development Center (NAMDC) opens in Albuquerque.
1985: Navajo translation of Old Testament completed.
1989: First picture dictionary, The New Oxford Picture Dictionary: English/Navajo,
by Marvin Yellowhair and E.C. Parnwell
1992: The basic reference for modern Navajo, Analytical Lexicon of Navajo,
by Robert W. Young and William Morgan.
1995: Major textbook upgrade, including tapes, Dine Bizaad: Speak,
Read, and Write Navajo, by Irvy W. Goossen.
1995: Major contribution on place names, Navajo Place Names, by Alan Wilson
1996? Navajo computer fonts become available.
1998: First bilingual map, Dine Bikeyah: Navajo Lands, by Time Traveler
????: Navajo web browser encoding, Navajo road signs