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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Members Of Navajo Nation Work To Keep Their Language — Diné Bizaad — Alive

a brick building that says san juan school district on it
Kate Groetzinger
The San Juan School District is one of the only districts in Utah that teaches the Navajo Language, but a majority of students aren’t fluent.

Last week the Navajo Nation Council met with Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson to discuss the various Navajo issues including the need to have the Navajo language present in Utah schools.

According to delegate Nathaniel Brown, the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education reported only about 0.4% of students were fluent in the language this last year. He said it’s quickly becoming obsolete but it’s not for a lack of want.

Brown said a 2017 survey found over 97% of people who attended the Navajo Language and Culture Revitalization summit wanted to learn Diné Bizaad.

“They wanted to speak the language to converse with parents, family [and] grandparents,” he said. “They wanted to know the names of the holy deities. They said they feel like they're missing a part of them. Our people, they are hungry for it. Our youth, they said, ‘Yes, if you can make it available online, I will be on it.’” 

Brown said that’s why he’s looking to work with the Utah State Board of Education to make the language more accessible to native students in other parts of the state.

The San Juan School District is one of the only districts in Utah that offers the Navajo language as a course in schools. More than half their student population is Native American.

Brenda Whitehorse is the director of the heritage language program of the district. She said one of the reasons such a small number of students are considered fluent is because of the nation’s bilingual test, which requires an oral presentation among other things.

The test itself is very complex,” Whitehorse said. “The Navajo Nation really expects students to be fluent in their presentation of who they are as a person. So they have to do their introduction and where they're coming from, but they also [answer] specific questions within the language and those can range in difficulty.”

She said last year, many students didn’t take the test, which could also account for the low numbers.

Still, Whitehorse said it’s important to keep languages like this alive.

“There's any kind of a risk in a language being lost,” she said. “It's a lot of that deep cultural knowledge, the ceremonies and the [information] that has been passed for many generations, that gets lost.”

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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