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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’í dijoolí). I wrote about the winds in another post titled, “Striped Winds and the Boy Who Stood Against Them,” which is based off a talk that I gave to a summer youth camp for Native kids.

In Native Nations, the social statistics are absolutely devastating in every aspect of our societies. Those of us from reservations witnessed first-hand the effects that alcohol and drugs had on our families and communities at large. We all have family members serving time in federal prisons or family members who suffer from addiction to various substances. In our communities, many are unemployed and live in third world conditions.

In my nation, the Navajo Nation, we have very few businesses, restaurants, retail shops, plazas, grocery stores, or shopping centers despite us having the largest reservation land base out of all the other Native Nations. The vast majority of businesses on the reservation are owned by non-Natives and large companies such as Bashas, Exxon, Chevron, McDonalds, Burger King etc. When I was a kid, my family would have to drive a long ways off the reservation to go shopping for clothes and basic life necessities.

Our home was out in the mountains where we used outhouses for toilets and kerosene lamps for light when the generator shut off at night. Many Navajo communities had to haul water from wells and go into town to do laundry or use phones. Things have not changed much over the years, as many Native people still live that way. There are few jobs on reservations but much depression and isolation. To top it off, in these current times, we are beginning to see a decline in language and culture at a rate never before seen.

Many of us Natives who grew up on reservations moved away to find solutions to the problems we witnessed while living on the reservation. For us, witnessing and experiencing the realities of life on the reservation motivated us to do something about it. It is one thing to read about the horrible statistics of Native people in an article, but quite another to actually be part of those statistics and watch those problems play out in our own families. So, some of us pursued higher education in the American schools. We studied law, medicine, business, education, science, political science, history etc., hoping to find some way to help our people. Yet, years after we returned to our reservation with our degree in hand, we saw that not much has changed, leaving many of us discouraged and wondering, “What are we missing? How can we rebuild our nation?” To answer these questions, I tell Native youth that we must start from the beginning and first understand how we got to this point. If we can understand the roots of the problems, then we can start figuring out ways to uproot them and pave a better future for ourselves and the generations to come.

To this day, our nations remain under the thumb of the United States because of the political status that was imposed on them by the United States Supreme Court in the early 19th century. According to the Court, tribes are not full independent nations; they are “more properly denominated as domestic dependent nations.” Consequently, though our nations have many of the same powers as other nations around the world such as the power to create laws, governments, judicial systems etc., they also lack the authority to do what they want with their own lands. Congress has plenary power over Native Nations, i.e. the power to do what it wants with Native people, which it has exercised many times over the years. Being designated as “domestic dependent nations” has tied Native Nations to the federal government and made them dependent on the government for a lot of things.

Because of our political status and how we’ve been labeled over the decades, Native people have always been thought of as a helpless population that needs to be protected. Even in the international arena it is becoming the same way. I tell people that we’ve been put in the same category as endangered species: save the whales, save the rhinos, save the seals, and also save the Native people. Sure, there was a time when Native people needed protection, and there are groups of indigenous people out there right now who still need protection, like those in South America, Mexico, Australia etc. But there are many indigenous groups today, like the Native Nations in the United States, that are past the era of protectionism. We are in the era of nation building and empowerment.

In the U.S. we have federal Indian law, a whole body of law that addresses the rights and protection of Native Nations and Native people. Is it perfect? Absolutely not! In fact, all of us Native people hate it, but the truth of the matter is that federal Indian law is here to stay. When I give lectures to law students, I tell them that trying to help Native people through federal Indian law is like trying to help a thirsty person by giving them saltwater. The fact is that the chances of getting the United States Supreme Court to overturn Indian law cases or rule in favor of Native Nations are very slim. It is a waste of time trying to do it, especially with the current administration that has been appointing very conservative judges to the federal courts and justices to the Supreme Court.

But here’s the thing: we don’t need to change federal Indian law to make changes in Indian Country, and we sure as heck don’t need any of that nonsense from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). If you think we do, then you were probably brainwashed by academics and professors who are out-of-touch with Native people and are more interested in sitting in their university offices in big cities, writing scholarly articles to gain recognition, than actually going out and working on reservations with Native people. But don’t worry, this article will help to set you straight.

Indeed, federal Indian law has done a lot of damage to Native Nations here in the U.S. It is a very flawed, terrible system, but because it’s flawed, that means there is some wiggle room. We can use that wiggle room to rebuild our nations and help alleviate some of the issues our people face. Lance Morgan, the founder of Ho-Chunk, Inc. which is one of the most successful Native-owned, non-gaming corporations in Indian Country, takes the same approach. According to Lance Morgan, he learned about federal Indian law and then forgot about it. To him, rebuilding Native Nations hinges on one thing: the exercise of sovereignty. He single handedly reduced poverty and increased the standard of living in his nation. That is the approach we need to take as Native Nations. Instead of going to Congress and the federal courts for help, we need to start using our sovereignty to create laws, institutions, and opportunities for our people.

This nation building approach comes with another aspect, one that many Native Nations have overlooked: culture and language. You cannot build or rebuild nations without incorporating the culture and language of the people. Nation building theorists call this cultural match; I call it common sense. Nevertheless, I have seen countless Native Nations discount or completely disregard the importance of drafting laws and creating institutions with culture and language in mind. If anything, the common approach in Indian Country, which is counterproductive to nation building efforts, has been hiring outside people, firms, and companies to help draft laws, and build and run Native enterprises and governmental departments. Thus, the direction and future of many Native Nations have been placed in the hands of outsiders, nonmembers of the nation who not only rely on western methods but who also do not live on the reservation or understand the people’s culture or language.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this? What’s the whole point of having a nation when it looks like the state or the federal governments? Wasn’t the whole purpose of bringing court cases into the federal courts to protect Native languages and cultures? Not only that, but didn’t our ancestors fight countless wars with the U.S. so their descendants can retain their Native culture, language, and identity? Now you’re just going to throw it all away and adopt everything American? Why are non-Natives in control of Native departments and companies? Do I need to ask more rhetorical questions to get through to you????

Countless studies have been done by Native people like Manley Begay (a world renowned expert in Native Nation building and professor of applied indigenous studies) and organizations like the Native Nations Institute which have concluded that Native Nations who incorporate culture and language into their governments, institutions, and laws do better overall as a nation than those Native Nations that do not. Go figure! Thus, over the years, I have emphasized to Native leaders and especially Native students the importance of knowing culture and language when working for Native Nations. To support my argument, I point to the Navajo word for law—beehaz’áanii.

Beehaz’áanii can be translated into English as “law” which encompasses statutes, codes, ordinances, court opinions etc. Its literal translation, though, is, “that which creates a condition.” When I tell non-Navajos this, they wonder why we refer to law as “that which creates a condition.” I tell them because to us Navajos, the purpose of law is to create and maintain hózhǫ́ (translated as peace, balance, and harmony) within the nation. The rules, principles, and doctrines that create the condition of hózhǫ́ are thus called beehaz’áanii. Moreover, the laws that create hózhǫ́ are based on Navajo culture and tradition such as k’é and k’eii (which are doctrines or rules that govern how people should interact with each other).

I use beehaz’áanii when teaching Native students about the importance of knowing culture and language if they choose to work for Native Nations. If you know the Navajo word for law, i.e. beehaz’áanii, you’ll come to see that some of the things you learn in law school do not coincide with it. Things like incarceration, adversarial systems, rules of evidence etc. tend to conflict with how Navajo people understand and use law. This is true for many Native Nations.

For me, when I was a law student, I learned many things in law school that conflicted with how I understood law and justice from a Navajo perspective. Having two ways of thinking—English and Navajo—was advantageous because it allowed me, as a student, to determine if what I was learning could be used in helping Native Nations rebuild. Would an adversarial court system work well in a Native Nation that views justice the same way as the Navajo Nation? Should we be focusing more on locking people up or implementing more diversion and rehabilitation programs? Do American laws coincide with beehaz’áanii, i.e. do they create the condition we are striving for? Is there a way to weave together two methods to build something that our nation can use to help solve issues?

So for Native law students, and Native students in general who are looking to work for their nation, your education is two-fold. You must learn the American/western methods, but more importantly, you must learn the methods of your own people. And the only way to do that is to learn the culture and language. When you are sitting in classes, those two things will help you see which solutions will work with your nation and which ones won’t.

Without knowing Native culture and language, students have a tendency to learn and adopt whatever is taught to them. This is a common issue that I am seeing in Native students. I have taken a lot of heat from teachers, professors, and other educators after making statements encouraging our Native youth to question the theories and work of educators. Teachers and professors are not all-knowing beings. In fact, I came to disagree with the work of a lot of my former professors, and if anything, these days I try to protect my people from the teachings of professors whose work and theories are, as I see it, unrealistic and out-of-touch with how things actually are in Indian Country.

As the elder said about not being grounded with Native values, you tend to just go wherever the wind blows you even if that wind comes from the mouths of educators who are misguided. These days, the education of Native students has become too grounded in western methods, and they are forgetting to learn their people’s culture and language. As a result, many are working for Native Nations and trying to implement what they learned in western schools to Native people and institutions. The result? It does not work, and the opposite effect happens: they actually end up assimilating their own people by implementing western laws and institutions.

Another example I use is the practice of medicine. In a lot of Native Nations, the elders are used to traditional forms of medicine such as healing ceremonies, prayers, songs, herbs, and seeing medicine men. They are very hesitant to go to hospitals or doctors because they think Native medicine and western medicine clash, which they do in many respects. The elders say the doctors and nurses scoff when they hear that an elder is receiving treatment from a medicine man and caution them about the dangers of taking herbs picked by an herbalist. Western medicine discounts indigenous medicine even though many prescriptions you see today were stolen from indigenous peoples and indigenous medicine has been around for thousands of years. The doctors and nurses have a tendency to be too scientific and communicate with traditional Native patients in a harsh manner.

In Navajo Nation, the elders have said that western doctors often talk like witches who perform witchcraft. When Navajo elders visit a doctor, the doctor will say things to them like, “You have a disease that is incurable,” “You must take this for the rest of your life,” “You will only get worse,” or in extreme cases, “You only have so much time to live.” To a traditional Navajo person, words like that, especially when spoken with confidence, are considered nchxǫ́’ógo ba’álííl bideezla’ bee indzin (evil power used to harm), hwéyondzin (a curse), and ííndziin (witchcraft). A practitioner of Navajo medicine, i.e. medicine men and women, would never make such statements. Why would you say negative statements to a patient and put them in a worse position, mentally and emotionally, when your primary role as a medicine person is to help people? Probably because of the Hippocratic Oath and the fear of a medical malpractice suit. Navajo medicine men and women, regardless of what is afflicting their patients, will instead say things like, “Naa dadiidááł.” (You are going to get better). That’s the difference between Navajo medicine and western medicine. Healing is wholistic and most of the time begins with the mental and emotional health of the patient.

Regardless of which society medicine comes from, the goal is the same: to help patients and return them back to balance. I believe there is a way to weave the two together. Each one has something to learn from the other. This is why I tell students that it’s important to know the culture and language of the people you’re trying to help. In the health field, you should keep the above example in mind when helping to develop and establish health institutions on reservations, which are desperately needed.

Lastly, I have cautioned Native leaders and Native Nations about hiring and putting non-Native people in leadership positions. Again, I have taken a lot of heat from people after expressing my viewpoint. My viewpoint is not based on race or discrimination; it is based on the nation building principles I outlined above: having familiarity with culture and language. I truly believe that Native Nations are best served by Native people because they are familiar with the nation’s culture and language. Understanding culture and language is crucial in rebuilding Native Nations, a fact based on data and studies compiled by various research organizations.

Moreover, our history has shown us what happens when non-Natives determine the fate of Native Nations, e.g. Public Law 280, assimilation policies, termination era, BIA boarding schools, the imposition of western religions, and the rapid decline of the overall Native way of life. I do not agree with non-Natives being made directors, supervisors, chief prosecutors, chief public defenders, chief of police etc. They have a hard time serving Native people because they do not understand them. I've witnessed this first hand. For instance, Native employees frequently ask for time off for ceremonial purposes or indicate that they cannot do certain things because of cultural taboos. A Native person understands these things, but most non-Natives will not.

During my career I have also seen too many Native Nations that hire non-Native people over Native people, and that needs to stop. I have seen too many non-Native directors, attorney generals, judges, attorneys, chief prosecutors, chief public defenders etc., many of which are just looking for benefits and a paycheck. They have no stake in the nation they serve and have nothing to lose when the decisions they make do not pan out. Yet, they constantly tell Native Nations what to do and who to hire. Most of the time the non-Natives throw out applications of qualified young tribal members and instead hire other non-Natives. To any Native leaders who may be reading this, you need to rethink this approach and put more faith in your people. Non-Natives may have more experience and credentials, but they are missing crucial aspects to working in Indian Country: ties to the people, culture, and language. A Native person who works for their nation has everything to gain and everything to lose.

I remain unconvinced that there is a lack of qualified Native workers. I give lectures and presentations to young Native students all the time who are majoring in engineering, education, law, medicine, history, and political science, to name a few. They are very much qualified to do the jobs that need to be done in Native Nations, and even if they don’t have the experience, they can be trained to take over positions. I’ve spoken to too many young Native people who have expressed how Native Nations, including their own, have hired non-Native people instead of them. They have become discouraged and went to work for companies, departments, and organizations outside the Native Nation. We need to stop doing that to our people and bring them home because one day, we will turn to them to lead our nations.

This is not to say that no non-Native person should work for Native Nations. To the contrary, I think they can offer a lot to our people and some have done amazing work in Indian Country. However, as Native people, we need to start taking control of our own future. The future of Native Nations should be in our hands and we need to start thinking long term. The decisions we make today will determine whether or not our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have a nation to call their own. It's an overwhelming burden, and difficult to handle. But we can do it together, and we should start by looking within ourselves to rediscover our culture and language. Embrace them because those two things will provide us with the road map that we need to build a better future for our people; without them we will be lost and continue on the path of assimilation and devastation. One word in a Native language can paint a thousand pictures, a thousand dreams. Come to know it and one day we will see what our ancestors saw many generations ago: nationhood. ‘Akót’éego shik’ei dóó shidine’é. Hózhǫ́ nahasdlii’.

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