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A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: The Importance of Native Languages in Nation Building

In English, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for indigenous people, it seems to be the opposite—a word in our language is worth a thousand pictures. As a kid, and even today, I ask my father to help me interpret a Navajo word into English, and we both struggle to do it. Indeed, interpreting any language into another is challenging especially if those languages have different roots. Translating between Germanic languages is definitely easier than translating between, for instance, English and Navajo.

First, let me say that I’m not holding myself out to be like Noam Chomsky or a person who has studied linguistics. That honor would actually go to my business partner Francisco Olea who has studied linguistics and speaks multiple languages and dialects. I always enjoy listening to him talk about linguistics. He never ceases to amaze me when I hear how he is able to command many languages. As for me, my view and understanding of language come from being an indigenous person, i.e. Navajo and Dakota, and knowing my culture.

People may be wondering why I am talking about language or what makes me qualified to do so. Sure, I may not be as qualified as an expert, but I believe that everyone regardless of credentials, education, or career status has something to contribute to discussions such as this. In fact, years ago, a good friend of mine once said to me, “You know what differentiates doctors and lawyers from the rest of us? Doctors and lawyers have just read more books than we have.” That statement, though it was made while my friend was in a drunken stupor, for some reason resonated with me and stayed with me throughout the years. It reminds people like me that even though we are lawyers or professionals that society deems worthy of a higher social status, we are also people. When you strip us of everything we own and put us side by side, there’s not much that differentiates us from one another, other than physical characteristics.

Accordingly, I think more Native people need to participate and engage in discussions about these kinds of topics. We have a lot of people around the world who have contributed to fields like linguistics, law, medicine etc. The vast majority are not Native who do not understand Native languages, societies, or cultures. Moreover, there are actually non-Native people out there who are considered “experts” in Native philosophy, history, culture, and language. I’ve listened to some of those folks speak and read their publications, but I shake my head because I think that you cannot truly understand a people unless you speak their language and lived among them. If you want to know about Native people, why not talk to Native people rather than read about them in a book written by a non-Native?

I came to understand language like this. If you speak multiple languages, you know that with language comes culture, but more importantly, with language comes a different way of thinking. From the day people are born, they see the world around them and interact with members of society. Consequently, their language becomes a way of identifying and describing the world around them, and communicating it to other people. Words are a manifestation of thoughts.

By that logic, it becomes apparent that when two people from different cultures, who speak different languages, are looking at or hearing the same thing, one understands it differently from the other. Take for instance, the word “medicine.” There are many different connotations to that word in English. When English speakers hear it, they may think of things like doctors, prescriptions, hospitals, or over-the-counter pills. Likewise, in Navajo, our word for medicine azéé has many connotations and invokes many mental images. Azéé can also mean “mouth.” When traditional Navajo people hear the word azéé, some of the things that may come to mind are things like herbs, herbalists, medicine men, certain foods, water, prayers, songs, and even running. Yes, you read correctly: running.

My grandparents (shinalí asdzáán) used to say that running was medicine, which is why our culture teaches young kids to run at the break of dawn every morning regardless of the weather. According to our stories, there was a time when monsters roamed our world and wreaked havoc on the people. In response, the Gods sent a baby girl to the people, called Changing Woman. The baby girl grew into a woman in four days and gave birth to twin boys. The twins were trained by the Gods so that one day they would fight the monsters and save the people. Part of their warrior training involved running every morning with the Gods. As the story goes, they ran and each day they become stronger and faster until they reached the point where they were faster than the Gods.

And so the old folks said to us younger kids in the morning, “Ndiidá! Dighádilyeed! Naayéé nik’izhgo dadookah.” (“Wake up! Go run! The monsters will be coming,” which refers to preparing kids for the hardships they will face in life). Thus, in Navajo culture, running cultivates a strong mental mindset (honííyoigo) in the youth and helps to develop physical strength (ha’íínshníi dooleeł). It makes kids resilient to disease (or monsters) and prevents laziness, preparing them for adulthood. It’s not only medicine but preventive medicine. As you can see, a word like “azéé” has its roots in so many other things including our creation story.

Sadly, most kids these days are not growing up with these teachings, and if you ask the older folks about the current state of our nation, they would attribute a lot of the health and mental problems, as well as high substance abuse rates, to our Native youth not being raised with Native values. They say those values teach you how to deal with life head on and not fall apart. They are roots that keep you grounded; otherwise, without them, you just float around aimlessly like leaves in the wind. Wherever the wind blows, you go with it even if the wind is of the bad type (i.e. niłch’í noodǫǫzí dóó niłch