Dr. Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie teaches Navajo at Northern Arizona University. In July, New Mexico became the first state to formally adopt a Navajo-language textbook for use in public schools, Dine Bizaad Binahoo’ahh, or Rediscovering the Navajo Language, written by Parsons-Yazzie.
SFR: How do you feel about the textbook being adopted?
EPY: I am really excited for two main reasons. One is that the state of New Mexico has embraced the Navajo language and, to me, that warms my heart. It warms me to the state of New Mexico. I’ve always loved the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe but, you know, it intensifies that feeling that I have for the state. The second reason is that my mother was from Crownpoint. I’m just excited and thankful that a state has stepped forward. My own state of Arizona has not.
How do you feel about that? A good portion of the Navajo Nation is in Arizona.
Yes it is. Arizona has a different policy when it comes to schools. They allow the school districts to make their own adoptions so each school district is on its own. On the other hand, we could have the superintendent of schools backing the textbook saying, ‘This is good. [This textbook] is comparable to books that are used for Spanish, French, German, and let’s endorse it.’ That would be my dream, but I need to be happy with New Mexico.
New Mexico’s education secretary, Veronica Garcia, said that students who learn their native language have an easier time learning abstract concepts in English. Do you agree?
It is true. For one thing, for the Navajo students, it will make them feel that their background is worthy. For years, the American Indians have suffered in the name of education, where their identity was nearly stripped of them by the federal government. Our parents and their grandparents and even my generation were put in boarding schools and told not to speak the language. I, myself, in second grade, had soap put in my mouth for speaking Navajo—my language. It was difficult not to associate soap [with the Navajo language]. Because what is soap used for? To wash dirt. I was given the connotation that my language was dirty. Think of years and years of that kind of abuse. We don’t feel like our language is good enough. But when our language is offered in schools and we have a textbook that is beautiful and in color and has pictures of today and our grandparents, their time, it makes students hold their head up a little higher, and when you have pride in yourself, you do better in school.
What were your experiences like, consulting with Navajo elders for this book?
One thing that’s advantageous about this book is that I spent nearly a semester and a half just meeting with elders. At first inviting them into my home and, of course, it’s protocol to prepare a meal for people coming into your home. I was spending so much time preparing food that I decided, ‘Let’s go elsewhere so I can sit and chat with you while the food is being prepared for us.’ So we went to either McDonald’s or a little truck stop down the road where the prices are not that high. They sure liked the ’50s music in McDonald’s. So we’d sit there and I’d read major portions of the textbook to them to make sure they agreed with the translations I made. I feel that I have the blessing of the elders. I just felt that every time I sat down to write, it was like I was being visited by a gentle, kind elder.
What were some challenges you ran into while writing this book?
One-third of the Navajo Nation is Protestant. And they are so adamant about not having the Navajo
language taught in the schools. They want to stop that mainly because the teachers and the Navajo philosophy permeate the Navajo language. No other textbook has been brought out that presents culture and language that the Christian Navajo people feel is safe to be taught in the schools.
Are more people becoming interested in learning the Navajo language?
I started teaching 18 years ago and, at that time, I had mostly non-Navajos in my class. And, for some reason, I thought I’d have mostly Navajos in my class when I first began teaching at NAU. Within a year, we were able to turn that around so that there were mostly Navajos in my class. They came to me and said, ‘I don’t know my language.’ It was sad that they had to learn the Navajo language in a sterile environment. At home they are learning the language through situations. That’s one thing I worked hard to present in my textbook, to present situations where words can be introduced based on a situation—showing a tiny part of Navajo life and language. The trend is moving so far away from the Navajo language, mainly because students feel there is a stigma attached to the Navajo language. They don’t feel the pride in the language like they should. They feel like second-class citizens if they have a Navajo accent. Other students look down upon them too. One thing I really reinforce in my classrooms is how the language influences our way of speaking English. Navajo people are so tolerant of other people from other lands who have accents and who speak English with an accent, and yet we’re intolerant of our own people who speak with an accent.
How does your textbook differ from other Navajo-language books?
My textbook goes a long way towards helping students lift their heads up high. [In the past], most Navajo-language textbooks were spiral-bound. They were done at Kinko’s. Effort was not put into the appearance of the books. Students would compare their books to the Spanish books, to the French books, to the German books. I wanted to present a book that is beautiful just like the language is and the people are and the children are, that they can say, ‘This is my book, and it’s written in Navajo. And it’s written by a Navajo.