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 generations.

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 Nation.

--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 indians.

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 Navajo literacy.

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 seen.

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.

Action Proposals

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 Franciscan Fathers.

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 Valkenburgh

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 Dine College.

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 Maps.

????: Navajo web browser encoding, Navajo road signs