GRENOBLE, FRANCE -- Surviving, enduring and prospering as indigenous people of North America requires the preservation of ancient cultures and languages, involvement in the political life of tribes and states, and continuing one's education to be competitive.
This was the message Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. presented at an
international colloquium titled "Sites of Resistance -- Textual Tactic" at l'Universite Stendahl, Centre d'Etudes sur les Modes de la ReprZsentation Anglophone.
The President was the featured speaker June 23 at the three-day conference. He attended with First Lady Vikki Shirley who was a guest at an addiction center here earlier in the day. They returned to Window Rock on June 26.
The President discussed how native people survived in North America, saying the Navajo Nation is among 262 federally-recognized tribes that have withstood the influx of the foreigner over the last 500 years. But there were far more tribal nations alive at that time, he said.
"Some Native Americans have been wiped out," he said. "There are only footprints. It's a very sad thing."
The Navajo were among those tribes that were almost destroyed, the President said, making reference to the Long Walk of the Navajos in 1864 "when we were herded to a land that was not our land," he said. "The belief that the only good Indian is a dead Indian once came from the highest office in the land," he said.
Navajos dwindled to about 4,000 people, he said. But over the past century and a half, they have grown in population to 300,000 strong.
The Navajo Nation is now within three of the 50 United States, comprising 25,000 square miles. It takes about six hours to travel from one end of the Navajo Nation to the other.
"We still occupy the land our forefathers occupied thousands of years ago," he said.
President Shirley explained that he personally rejects the terms "Indian" and
"reservation" because neither reflects reality from the DinZ perspective.
"Why should I lie about myself to the world," the President said. "This guy got lost in the West Indies. We were never Indians. We're the five-fingered, intelligent Earth-dwellers called DinZ. There's no word that describes me as Indian in my own language."
The closest the foreigner's language comes to describing him is as a native person or Native American, he said.
He said he also rejects the notion that he lives on a reservation, a term that
equates to being unfit to be called human but rather wildlife.
"I'm not wildlife," he said. "They tried to get us off our land but we're still there."
The President said the key to preserving native and Navajo culture is preserving and using the language. Within the language, he said, are many secrets, rich understandings and ways of perceiving the world.
"Our elders are still very much with us and they still know a lot of the stories and this way of life," he said. "We are diligent in saving our culture. We still have our ceremonies. It's all done in the Navajo language. There is no foreign language in the Navajo way."
The President also stressed the importance of Navajos' involvement in the
democratic and political process. Today, it's common to have Navajos run for
county and state elected office. Most elected school board positions on the Navajo Nation are held by Navajos.
"We have learned here that one cannot stand idly by and let it all happen," he said. "Oftentimes, in city halls and within state legislatures, they will talk about issues you have everything to do with, like your language. If your people are there to watch out for your interests, you fare better about what laws are put on the books."
On June 22, the President met with UNESCO Assistant-Director General Ahmed Sayyad to discuss Navajo opposition to the Arizona English-only law, among other topics.
The President said education will continue to be the key to Navajos' survival and prospering in the future.
"One needs to learn about foreign ways of life if one is to survive in the world," he said. "Navajos are beginning to write our own story, some even in our own language. Many have begun work on saving our culture, our language, our ceremonies using today's technology like the computer."
Education has enabled the Navajo Nation to be bold about planning for its own future, he said. An example is his plan for a $429 million Capital Improvement Plan bond proposal which will create more infrastructure on the Navajo Nation than ever before. Education has given Navajos the knowledge and ability to do this rather than remain dependent on the federal government, which he said was intentional and purposeful.
"Before, you had never heard of Navajos borrowing money amounting to millions of dollars," he said. "All of this has been made possible by getting an education and learning about ways to finance major projects and becoming a world player."
Wireless information technology has allowed the Navajo Nation to become more accessible to its people, even those in remote areas, he said. He explained that all 110 chapters have wireless satellite communications and computers that anyone can use.
The President said the Navajo Nation is also trying to develop a United Native Nations because working alone to achieve one's goals is difficult.
"Alone it is hard to get at what is good for the people," he said. "But working with other tribes, more can be accomplished."
He said the teaching of his elders tell him that other people are not the monsters in the world. The true monsters prey on everyone regardless of color, religion, land or language, he said. These are famine, thirst, greed, jealousy and hate.
"There are no impossibilities, only possibilities," he said. "Because you're the child of the Creator, you're part holy, too. So what you say will come to be. We're not an island unto ourselves. You cannot be blind to what's coming in. You have to be intelligent and pick up from outside forces. But we must be mindful of controlling our own way of life and continuing to be."
(George Hardeen is Navajo Nation Communications Director.)