Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tongues

As I'm writing this article for Native American Heritage Month about Native languages and preservation, I can't help but feel left out. I talked to five different Natives who speak five different languages and I can't say something for myself as a Navajo. 

"The language is slowing dying because the United States government wanted to kill it"

I grew up in an English-speaking household where the only fluent Navajo speaker in our little circle of cousins, aunties, uncles and my dad's parents is my grandpa, who is a reserved man who has to speak English to the rest of us because we only know English. 

I'm pretty good at speaking, reading and writing in English, it's my job after all. For me, learning another language is the most challenging thing I've ever attempted and failed at. I tried to learn Navajo in a 101 college course at the local Navajo tribal college. It was so foreign to me and with my slight lisp, half of the words were a challenge to physically pronounce. And maybe my teachers were really bad, but it was way too fast for me to comprehend anything. I dropped out of these classes by the second week. 

Then I tried to learn Spanish, German and Japanese and I failed miserably each time. I fulfilled my foreign language requirements for college with American Sign Language, which by now I have mostly forgotten.

Because I live in New Mexico, I probably know more Spanish words than Navajo words and that makes me feel sort of sad. Everyone says you must know your language because that's part of being Navajo, but I don't know my language. Sometimes fluent speakers and elders get mad at me when they find out that I don't speak Navajo. It's not just me, either, it's all the Navajos out out there who can't speak. They get mad at us like it's our fault, like we didn't want to learn Navajo.

The language is slowing dying because the United States government wanted to kill it and the Native American culture 150 to 200 years ago, during the kill-the-Indian-save-the-man era, racism and genocide is what any Indian policy was about back then. My great-grandparents and grandparents were forced to go to boarding schools where they were forbidden from speaking their language and beaten and abused if they did. By the time I came around, the Murphy family was already a mostly English-speaking family. And with no fluent speakers to learn from, it's impossible to learn a language that has been dubbed one of the hardest languages to learn.

I'm not a rare case. Many Native grandparents went through boarding schools and lost their language. Many parents, who may speak Navajo, also prefer to teach their children English because it's only in English that one can function in the current society. I've seen this, but I believe a person can be a lot smarter if they learn two languages.

So in a tribe you have a lot of nonspeakers, fluent speakers, speakers who can hold a decent conversation, listeners who only understand but can't speak, speakers who can't fully understand what's spoken to them and writers and readers who can't speak. I know it's like that at home

It is a sad fact that our language is disappearing, but I see good changes and strong strides to revitalize it. In my time in public school, there weren't any Navajo or culture classes. After I graduated from high school, they added Navajo to the curriculum.

"But I am Navajo because I can feel it. I feel different and I think differently. I came from the Mother Land and lived there my whole life and my heart is still in Crownpoint."

I got into a confrontation with a man who claimed he was from some southern New Mexico Apache tribe, a fake, unrecognized 'tribe' not related to the actual Apache tribes (I found out it was a loose-knit group of urban 'Natives' whose 'members' didn't belong to a particular tribe but they identified as 'Native,' he said). This guy went on and on about "you're not Native American unless you know your language, even if you don't have a tribal enrollment card and you don't exactly belong to a federally recognized tribe." Bogus. He asked me if I knew my language and I said no. He said, "Than you're not Navajo."

That made me furious. My voice started shaking out of anger because he totally dismissed my whole family and the fact that our blood line that can be traced to no where else but here. His words also made me feel bad because I have almost nothing to show for myself as a Navajo woman. I don't have an accent, I'm constantly mistaken for Mexican or white, I don't have the long hair and braids and I rarely wear any sort of Native jewelry or clothing (heck, I've never owned a Navajo dress or moccasins throughout my entire life — except when I was a baby).

But I am Navajo because I can feel it. I feel different and I think differently. I came from the Mother Land and lived there my whole life and my heart is still in Crownpoint. My skin is dark, my hair is black, my eyes are brown and my cheekbones are high in the sky. 

What I can do as a Navajo is spread awareness and education about my tribe and the Native American community because we are always misunderstood. I make it my business to know about current issues and news about the Native community. I have this blog. I want to make sure that everyone who gets to know me knows I'm Navajo and that they learn something from me.

1 comment:

  1. Although this is a good article. I really wish you'd learn the language. I am a 21 year old, Navajo female, and have been slowly learning words here and there. Now I am able to communicate with elders or any individual who only speak Navajo, which is a great accomplishment for myself. I urge you to continue to be involve with you community issues but also to continue to try and learn the language. Even a few words would help build your confidence in the fact you can learn. So please don't give up on your language.

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