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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.

The Navajo Language Goes To Mars: NASA Engineer Explains Historic Collaboration

Image shows reddish, rocky landscape with one rock circled and labeled Máaz.
Courtesy of NASA
The first feature the rover studied on Mars is named, Máaz, which means Mars in Navajo.

Aaron Yazzie was born on the Navajo Nation and grew up in Holbrook, Arizona, a town that borders the reservation.

As a kid, Yazzie said he never thought he would one day work for NASA.

“There just weren’t a lot of people that I knew in my community or my family that had gone down a path to get a job like this,” he said. “But I knew I was good at building things and being creative. I think those things pushed me in a path toward engineering.”

Now, Yazzie designs mechanical components for space robots, like drill bits for the current Mars rover. He’s also at the center of an unlikely collaboration between NASA and the Navajo Nation government.

The space agency is using the Navajo language, or Diné Bizaad, to name features on the surface of Mars, which Yazzie said is meaningful to him and his tribe but also totally coincidental.

He said NASA split up the area where the rover could possibly land on Mars into quadrants that are roughly one square mile, then they named them after different national parks and monuments across the U.S.

The robot just happened to touch down in the quadrant named after Canyon De Chelly National Monument, which is located on the Navajo Nation.

“So the science team, as soon as they landed in that quadrant, they were incredible in that they knew it could be an area that could be significant for us — us being Navajos,” he said.

The team reached out to Yazzie, as well as Navajo tribal leaders, and asked them to come up with a list of names for features of scientific interest on Mars in their language. Scientists will use the names to refer to the features until they are replaced by official names assigned by the International Astronomical Union.

The list includes the Navajo words tsé łichíí, which means “red rock,” and séítah, which means “amongst the sand,” along with phrases like tséwózí bee hazhmeezh, which means “rolling rows of pebbles, like waves.”

“The thought was, ‘If a Navajo person was looking around on Mars, this is how they would describe things,’” Yazzie explained.

He added suggestions like bidziil, which means “strength”, and hoł nilį́, which means “respect”, to the list. Perseverance, the name of the rover, was translated to Ha’ahóni.

Yazzie said he suggested those words because, although they don’t relate directly to the landscape of Mars, this is a chance to encourage people to learn Navajo.

That hope is shared by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who is part of the collaboration.

“We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language,” he said. “Our words were used to help win World War II, and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars.”

Although he’s not fluent in Navajo, Yazzie said the collaboration means a lot to him personally, because it’s bringing together his tribal identity and his work as an engineer.

“My two worlds, which I felt were so separate, are now overlapping in just the most beautiful way,” he said. “It’s something that I never thought I’d see in my career, or in my life.”

Yazzie said he plans to speak to high school students on the Navajo Nation about the collaboration, in order to inspire them to learn their language and consider careers in science and engineering.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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