Navajo is a Native North American language spoken primarily in the South-Western United States. It is one of the most widely spoken Native American languages north of the U.S.–Mexico border, with close to 170,000 Americans speaking Navajo, as of 2014.
During the 1870s, the federal government attempted to eradicate all traces of Native American culture and force tribes to conform to white civilisation (including the English language) out of perceived economic need. In spite of these efforts though, many proud Navajos have managed to hold onto their language and culture.
In August this year, Navajo Nation voters passed a referendum that means a non-native Navajo speaker can put themselves forward for president, for the first time. This decision, whilst political, has sparked a debate amongst the nation who see their language threatened as never before.
This decision is seen to be an acknowledgement that an increasing number of people see little value in the Navajo language. As more and more people move from the region to go to school or find work; their language skills will start to fade. Those with thick Navajo accents are teased at school, and are gradually forced to drop the language all together.
It has fallen to the elders to keep the history, wisdom, culture, traditions and language alive. Unfortunately though, every day an elder is passing, so the songs, prayers and ceremonies that form this rich culture will eventually pass too.
Some universities, and online learning courses such as Rosetta Stone, offer courses in this rich language as part of the Endangered Language Programme. Navajo is seen by many to be a very difficult language to learn though, and it will be for this reason that enrolment in these courses is so low in Northern Arizona universities.
Spanish is seen by most to be the most useful language of the southwest, as it is the language of business in this region. Navajo is restricted to such a limited area, and the fact that it’s so difficult to learn is making it increasingly unpopular to study.
A recent study by the BBC concluded that communities struggling with economic growth are often forced to leave behind their indigenous languages. The dominant languages surrounding these communities are often forced to take over, and it becomes increasingly difficult for people to hold onto their native language if they want to strive for better economic conditions.
Many Navajos are looking upon this referendum as a wake-up call. Tribal members are starting to ask each other tough questions. What is it being Navajo? What is Navajo to the community? How can we hold onto our language? It is this special language that sets the community apart from the many others in the surrounding area. This is an issue the community is now trying to address.
The next language referendum will take place in 2018 when the Navajos elect their next president. Former tribal leaders were under oath in office in Navajo. This will change if the next president doesn’t speak the language.
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