Some 200 Natives attended a showing of Finding Nemo in the Navajo Language at the Regal Majestic Downtown in Silver Spring, Maryland on April 21 and 22. I never knew so many Navajos were in the area, and the intertribal crowd surprised me: Our communities typically keep to our own in the Nation’s Capital. It makes me think that Indians might have a chance of taking D.C. again.
Now, you may be wondering why a non-enrolled Pamunkey would be writing about a Navajo language story. I’m not here to get into tribal politics, and I’m not an employee of Disney, nor of any tribal government. Virginia Indians have never really gotten a slice of federal Indian allocations and I doubt any of us will be “Public Indians” anytime soon, so I’m not here for a piece of either pie. I can’t pass for bilagáana or zhini except for maybe on the phone, with the lights off, so that’s out. It’s really important, but I’m also not strictly here as a father of two Navajo boys or as a founder and moderator of /r/IndianCountry.
I’m here to let Indian country know Disney’s most famous fish saying “Yá’át’ééh!” in front of your children is one of the most important things Disney has done in years and, Navajo or not, you have a stake in that.
Sure, learning a second language helps brain development in children and you might be thinking it’s more practical if your child learns Chinese, Spanish, or Arabic. They’re certainly free to do so, but those languages are not endangered and there’s a greater likelihood that their speakers will learn English and not Navajo, Cherokee (Tsalagi), Lakota or Dakota. I shouldn’t have to explain that speaking your own language is a matter of self-respect or that community, language, and culture become more important the less we are able to appeal to the cancerous colonizer notion of racial purity. I shouldn’t have to explain that these virtues are more powerful than sovereignty and the tribal politics that serve it.
For a lot of us, English is the only language we know. Last year, Chris Deschene, through little fault of his generation, learned the cost of that the hard way. My own people learned that lesson years ago. At best, my community has the hope of restoring our language, perhaps moving on to preserving it, maybe even proliferating it. Other communities possess more wealth in this regard.
Yes, boarding schools, churches, and government at all levels endeavored to collectively “beat the Indian out of us” and we ought to not finish the job ourselves. We have enough “Jacqueline Whites” and enough Indian parents who were scared to teach their children anything but English. These are reasons why our languages are endangered, not excuses for our part in that. We’re not responsible for our childhood, but we’re accountable for our adulthood and to our children for the childhood we provide.
And it’s not too late for us, or them.
During the movie, I saw a school of cartoon fish capsize a boat through their intense, coordinated effort while chanting the Navajo word: Yeego (harder/more). In that theater and at the dinner afterwards, I saw something as pure as childhood, as certain as justice. I witnessed the reawakening of a community bound by indigeneity: Devoid of Public Indians, devoid of corruption, and mercifully free of the local D.C. huckster show from people who are merely great at aping and appropriating other tribe’s traditions and showing up for photo ops.
I expect that crowd will realize the power of our presence in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, and we’ll meet again.
Indigenous language restoration, preservation, and proliferation efforts can be found among tribes like the Navajo Nation, in podcast challenges, language apps, and (occasionally free) online courses. Today, Disney promotes a powerful mainstream example and vehicle for teaching our children how to speak with the voice our Creator gave us.
Our stories didn’t begin in English. They also don’t have to end that way. You have to wonder: If Mr. Deschene had access to Finding Nemo in Navajo as a boy, would he be President of the Great Navajo Nation today?
If the rest of us pushed for indigenous language preservation through a combination of grants, our own sweat (and occasional largesse), partnerships, and philanthropy, would we be hearing a voice more familiar to our own ancestors than “Yeego?”
“Lose your language, lose your Tribe” is helpful as self-motivation, but doubles as a cudgel in the hands of cultural gatekeepers and outsiders, even other Indians, who would divest us of our own heritage. I’m not a language fetishizing usurper clubbing you over the head about your connection to your ancestors or the Creator through indigenous language; your ancestors don’t talk to me or mine, and your relationship with the Creator is your business.
However, we’re all stuck in the same fishing net. When we’re swimming and pushing against it, what will you chant?
Kiros A.B. Auld is Pamunkey, posts at /r/IndianCountry, a Board Member at Native American LifeLines, and graduated from the Howard University School of Law. At Walker Law, LLC his work involved governmental relations, economic development, and Virginia Indian Tribal Recognition matters. He currently fights to expand Native American social media market share and presence; freely offers economic and personal development opportunities to his community; and advocates that defending the reputation of our communities is a duty, a public service, and a good in itself.