NAU Navajo language program thriving

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Northern Arizona University's Navajo language program, despite the harsh economic situation and budget cuts that are affecting all public universities and programs in Arizona, continues to move forward and hang on in these trying times to teach the next generation how to be fluent Navajo speakers.

The program's director, Dr. Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, Ed.D., has been with the program for almost 20 years.

"The language and teachings of our elders are so important. Their words and our language bring strength to the individual, to the community, to our society and people. I want to keep those things alive, who we are ... that's why I teach what I do," Parsons Yazzie said.

The program has had its own share of ups and downs as the budget cuts are shutting down programs that don't seem to be as important or successful as others.

Parsons Yazzie also went on to say, "The minor programs are being taken away. I've fought for our minor program to stay. Our children need it. It's not like other minors that award students with partial knowledge of the language; ours come out speaking the language fluently. I won't let them take it away."

Although not a lot of students minor in the program, they have averaged one a year over the past 20 years that Parsons Yazzie has been involved. This year is the exception.

Parsons Yazzie went on to say, "We're graduating four students with Navajo minors this year. It's mostly due to Ms. Inez Nez from Rough Rock. She won't let the students leave without doing what they need to do. She stays on them and keeps them motivated and moving forward."

The program not only involves Navajo students who want to learn to speak and write their language, but it also attracts a large Anglo population spiced with a good variety of international students as well.

"There's global interest in our language. Exchange students want to know what Navajo is like. They want a glimpse of it. They want to know why this language is the most difficult to learn." said Nez.

"There's been a lot of Anglo students in my classes over the years. I've wondered why they want to learn Navajo, and there always seems to be some connection to the reservation. They usually have a good friend who's Navajo or they know a family really well and want to be able to communicate better with them," Parsons Yazzie stated.

And why are Navajo students studying in the program?

"I don't want to let the language die. I'm probably about 60 percent fluent. I want to learn to read and write it and then teach my children to speak it," said student Greg Yazzie.

"I could always understand it, but could never reply back to my elders. I want to communicate more with them. To carry on a real conversation with them," student Wess Bradley added.

"We're getting a lot more freshman in the course then ever before," Parson Yazzie continued. "We're trying to teach them that being Navajo is cool. It's a wonderful language and lifestyle."

The language's survival is not out of the woods yet. Like most Indigenous languages in the United States, fluent speakers of Navajo are dwindling fast.

"We're losing it at an alarming rate. If it's not taught at home, the language will eventually die. The home is where the language has the soil and the necessary time for that seed of language to grow deep roots, to grow a strong foundation. Without those roots, the language has nothing to cling to. It doesn't stay with the students. They need to arrive here with the language," Nez said. "Then we can take them to that next level of reading and writing and preserving it."

Parson Yazzie agrees that the language is in a very fluctuating state and that much of the technical language, the language spoken in ceremonies and chapter house meetings is being lost and replaced with a less and not as purposeful "conversational language."

Despite these setbacks and added difficulties with this language, the Navajo program at NAU continues to strive to do its best, with caring teachers leading the way, to pick up the pieces that are being dropped in the homes and try to plant them in the next generation of fluent speakers.


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