Published Online: July 29, 2008

N.M. First State to Adopt Navajo Textbook

In the Navajo language, there's no one word that translates into "go" — it's more like a sentence.

"There are so many ways of 'going,'" said Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, a Navajo professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "It states who is going, how many of us are going, where are we going. So the tense, the adverb, the subject, the number of people, all of that is tied up in one little tiny verb."

Those verbs are part of what makes the Navajo language one of the most difficult to learn, she says. Yazzie is hopeful a book she recently wrote will provide a user-friendly way for New Mexico students to learn not only the language but the culture of a tribe that long has tied the two elements.

State officials formally adopted Yazzie's book, Dine Bizaad Binahoo'ahh, or Rediscovering the Navajo Language, Tuesday in Santa Fe. While other books on Navajo language exist, state officials say New Mexico is the first to adopt a Navajo textbook for use in the public education system.

About 10 school districts in New Mexico provide Navajo language instruction. Out of seven American Indian languages that were taught in the public school system during the 2006-07 school year, 5,024 students were learning Navajo.

The Navajo language long had been an oral language, and many Navajo elders fluent in their native tongue cannot read or write the language. Tribal officials have expressed concern that the language is dying among the youth, leading to some immersion programs on the reservation.

Yazzie said there is a shortage of written material available not only in Navajo but other American Indian languages.

"Whatever comes out, they're so eager to get their hands on it," she said.

School districts in New Mexico, as well as U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, can review Yazzie's book and decide whether to use it starting in the 2009-10 school year. The book will be accompanied by a CD with the voices of Yazzie and her brother, Berlyn Yazzie, a former educator and administrator on the Navajo Nation.

In the Navajo culture, certain topics — such as how to build a hogan or cradle board and how to care for cattle and horses — should be addressed by men. Other topics, including the preparation of food, clothing and caring for children, should be addressed by women.

"I wanted to be culturally correct, so that's why we included the male and the female voice," said Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, who has taught Navajo language at NAU for 18 years.

Each chapter of the book, which Yazzie said is suitable for students of all ages, begins with a cultural lesson and guides readers through verbs, sentence construction, clanship, clothing, formal education, telling time the Navajo way, the reservation, Navajo teachings, corn fields, livestock, textures, shapes and the Navajo government.

It also includes pictures of people who have lived on the Navajo reservation, which stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Yazzie said she looks forward to students sharing the book with Navajo elders and "pretty soon conversation will be sparking around fires."

"It has culture, it's manageable, it's easy," she said. "It invites you in, it's captivating. They'll (students) see that their language is important enough to put in a book like this, and they will be more proud of their language."

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