The first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by
Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian
Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo
reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo
’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though
to speak but says nothing)”
I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her
mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left
unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants,
though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to
play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is
another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.
’aa ’áhályánii: “bodyguard”
In August of 2015, I move from Boston to Tucson, to join an M.F.A.
program in creative writing. I applied to schools surrounding the Navajo
reservation because I wanted to be closer to my mother’s family. My
plan: to take classes on rug weaving and the Navajo language (Diné
Bizaad); to visit my family as often as possible. It will be opened: the
door to the path we have lost.
’ąą ’ályaa: “It was opened.”
A PDF version of the Navajo-English dictionary from the University of
Northern Colorado. I wonder which librarian there decided to digitize
it. Most government documents, after they are shipped to federal
depositories around the country, languish on out-of-the-way shelves and
collect decades of dust before being deaccessioned and destroyed. I have
worked in these libraries—I know.
ąą ’ályaa, bich’į’: “It was opened to them; they were invited.”
One of the reasons Navajo soldiers were recruited as code talkers during
the Second World War was because there were no published dictionaries of
their language at that time—and because the grammatical structure of the
language was so different from English, German, and Japanese. They were
invited to: a world beyond the borders of the reservation. My mother
always told me the only way to get off the Rez is to join the military
or marry off.
’ąą ’át’é: “It is open.”
One of the first typewriters that could adequately record the Navajo
language was built for Robert Young, a linguist who also worked with
William Morgan and published a more comprehensive dictionary and grammar
guide (“The Navaho Language”), in 1972. In the nineteen-seventies, a
Navajo font was released for the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter,
which would serve as the basis for a digital font on early computers.
’ąą ’át’éego: “since it was open”
Navajo fonts are now available for download in multiple typefaces: Times
New Roman, Verdana, and Lucida Sans.
’áádahojoost’įįd: “They quit, backed out, desisted, surrendered.”
Spring. 1864. The “Long Walk” begins. The U.S. Army forcibly relocates
the Navajo from their homeland, to Bosque Redondo, in eastern New
Mexico. Those who do not resist learn to walk, but death follows both
’aa ’dahoost’įįd, t’óó: “They gave up, surrendered.”
There are many reasons parents do not teach their children the Navajo
language: U.S. monolingual policies, violence experienced in boarding
schools, and perceived status. Those who speak English well will have a
better chance for escape.
’aa dahwiinít’į́iį’: “into court (a place where justice is judicially
A close cousin of mine is scheduled to testify in court in one week; she
isn’t sure if she wants to go. I pick her up anyway. Bring her back to
Tucson with me.
’aa deet’ą́: “transfer (of property, or ownership)”
My aunt tells me we have land on the reservation, just off I-40. We’ve
inherited it from our great-grandmother, Pauline Tom. Only Pauline Tom
had many children, and their children had many children, and after she
died, in 2008, all those children started fighting. It’s a common
problem, and it isn’t unique to the Navajo Nation. Federal
land-allotment policies have resulted in too many heirs for too few
’áadi: “there, over there (a remote place)”
On the drive to Tucson along I-40, my cousin points out the black-tar
roofs of our family’s houses, and the cemetery—a small, square piece of
land—where our great-grandmother is buried. The cemetery is barely
distinguishable from the rest of the landscape, and, when I follow her
gaze, look away from the highway, I see only the stark, white faces of
the headstones and the silver glint of a ribbon in the wind.
’áádįįł: “It is progressively dwindling away; disappearing.”
In 1968, a decade after the first dictionary was published, ninety per
cent of the children on the reservation who entered school spoke Navajo; in
2009, only thirty per cent knew the language (Spolsky, “Language
Management for Endangered Languages,” 117).
’áadiísh: “There? Thereat?”
September 22, 2015. The second time I pass our allotment on I-40, I try
to find the spot my cousin showed me. I look for the headstones; I think
of stopping and trying to find my grandmother’s grave. My cousin told me
that if you don’t do the proper blessing, the spirit will follow you
home. (She asked me, “What is the difference between a spirit and a
ghost?”) I don’t know the blessing, but it doesn’t matter; I can’t
recognize the cemetery or my family’s land.
’ąąh ’dahaz’ą́: “illness, sickness, an ailment”
September 19th. I catch a cold from my students. Might be the flu. I
tell my cousin to stay away, but she says she won’t get sick. We spend
all day curled up on the couch watching “Shameless.” She rests her head
on my shoulder, on my hip.
’á’á hwiinít’į́, “kindness”
’aa hwiinít’į́: “trial (at law), molestation”
How are these words (kindness/molestation) that sound so similar so
different? My aunt tells my cousin that our maternal grandmother
molested her sons. My mother tells me other stories, similar but not the
same. (“Why would they tell us that?”) It’s hard to believe, but it
isn’t. There will never be a trial. These are words better left
unspoken, forgotten, erased.
’aa hwiinít’įįhígíí: “the court session that is to come”
September 16th, 2015. My cousin is told that if she doesn’t appear for
the court date, a warrant will be put out for her arrest. I agree to
drive her back to Window Rock on Monday night, after I am done teaching
for the day. It is a six-hour drive, but I am almost happy to make it. I
will be in Window Rock, with my family, on the second anniversary of my
mother’s death, not by plan but by circumstance.
’ą́ą́hyiłk’as: “body chill”
I am sick with fever, alive with fever dreams. I dream of a two-story, sandstone motel, its three square walls opening onto the desert. A sun sets between two mountains, and heavy drapes are drawn across all the windows. My mother and my aunt and all my sisters are running in and out of the rooms, slamming doors, shouting at each other from the landings. I understand that each door is a choice, each room a potential future, and that my mother’s and my aunt’s and my sisters’ doors are closed to me.
’aak’ee: “fall, autumn”
I start teaching my first freshman-composition class in the fall. I’m
convinced, like most first-year teachers, that I have no idea what I am
talking about; I spend the entire hour sweating in front of my class.
But, afterward, two dark-haired, dark-skinned girls walk up to me and
ask me: What are your clans? Where is your family from? We are Navajo,
too. We are all three nervous and unsure where the conversation should
go, but I want to grab hold of them and root them next to me; graduation
rates of native students are abysmally low.
’ąą kwáániił: “It is expanding; it is getting bigger.”
My cousin disappears in the middle of the night and leaves us a note:
Went to Gallup with Heather and Faith need to get pads and face wash.
Should be back soon. She leaves us a number, the wrong number. (“She
prolly went to see that guy.”)
’aaníí, t’áá, “It is true; truly; really; verily.”
My cousin tells me she didn’t see her boyfriend again. That she went
over to Shorty’s and helped him set mouse traps in the middle of the
night. He couldn’t do it himself, he kept catching his fingers. But she
would tell me if she saw him.
’aaníí, t’áásh: “Is it so? Is it true?”
The answer is, in many ways, unknowable; for our mothers, the surest
protection from the past was to spin truths and falsehoods into one
story, one thread, impossible to distinguish in the weave.
’ááníłígíí: “that which is occurring; the happening; the event”
I have been walking around the thing that happened, stepping around the
truth, trying to protect my cousin from myself.
’áát’įįdę́ę: “what he did; his aforementioned act”
My cousin calls me at four-thirty in the morning, and I answer; her
voice is thick with tears. She found out her boyfriend was cheating. She
started the fight. I know this story. I know it. These are words better
left unspoken; a story better lost to time. Still, I have no words to
help her. I will come get you, I tell her. I will bring you home with
’abąąh náát’i’: “border, strand (of the warp of a rug)”
A Navajo blanket is woven on a loom and will never outgrow its frame. Do
we finish the story our mothers began, or do we rip out the weaving and
begin anew? It is not so easy to erase or forget the things that have
come before us.
’ábi’diilyaa: “He was made to be . . . ”
. . . the kind of man who hits women. He crawled inside his father’s
shadow and filled it out.
’ábidiní, ha’át’íí shą’: “What do you mean?”
One of my Navajo students interviews her aunt, who teaches Navajo
language classes, and she writes a paper about revitalizing Diné Bizaad.
I ask her if she would put me in contact with her aunt to answer some of
my own questions. Her aunt agrees to e-mail me her responses, but I am
so lost, I don’t know the right questions to ask. I write a rambling
e-mail about adjectives and verbs and the state of being, and she never
’abi’doogį́: “He was hauled away.”
When I was little, my mother called the cops on my father, often.
Usually after they had both been drinking. I remember standing on the
street with our neighbors, watching the cops chase my father down the
road, shove him into a police car, and haul him away.
’ábi’dool’įįdii, t’áá ’aaníí bee: “that with which he was really harmed”
What are the roots of domestic violence on the reservation? Inescapable
poverty. Powerlessness. Untreated mental illnesses. Self-medication
through alcohol. Cycles of abuse: fathers beating mothers beating sons
beating their lovers and future mothers.
’ábidoołdįił: “It will annihilate them.”
Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault are higher among Native
Americans than any other ethnicity in the United States. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
from 2008 reported that almost forty per cent of Native American women
identified as victims of domestic violence during their lifetimes. These
are conservative figures; many assaults go unreported.
My first trip to the Rez. I wake before everyone, and slip out of bed
and out the door with my aunt’s binoculars. My aunt’s dog, Toro, follows
me down the twisting dirt road and into the flowering sagebrush hills.
Toro follows his nose off the path, under bushes, over piles of gravel
and rock. He misses a pair of cottontails, who bolt out from under my
feet as I cross the same ground minutes later; they reach the safety of
a hidden burrow before he turns around.
’ách’ą́ą́h: “in front of”
My aunt and her neighbors clear the summer weeds out of the front yard
and sweep them into piles. Toro has made a small rabbit’s nest of them;
he lies in a tight little ball. I call Toro’s name and he lifts his
head, fixes me with red, watery eyes, but he does not move.
’ach’é’é: “daughter, niece (daughter of one’s sister) (female speaking)”
After my mother dies, my aunt tells me that I am her daughter now—that
she is my “little mother.” This is how she introduces me to everyone:
This is my niece! She’s a teacher at the University of Arizona! This is
how everyone responds: Hello, niece.
’ach’é’édą́ą́’: “one’s yard, or dooryard”
My maternal great-grandmother froze to death, and my aunt is shocked
that I did not know. I don’t understand because freezing to death in the
desert, in the sun, surrounded by yellow sagebrush flowers, doesn’t make
sense to me. My aunt tells me that Pauline Tom fell while checking on a noise
outside, and she broke her hip in the fall. My aunt curls her hands on
her skinny little wrists, mimes our grandmother crawling in the dirt,
but she could not crawl far enough. My grandmother froze to death in the
winter, in the deep dark of the night, in her own backyard.
’acheii (achaii): “maternal grandfather”
I met my maternal grandfather once, when I was very young. He was a
Navajo police officer. When he got sick, my mother and my aunt started
fighting over who would take care of him. My aunt talked too soon about
pulling the plug, and they stopped speaking for years.
’áchį́į́h: “nose, snout”
I call Toro’s name again, and he stands on quivering legs. He hobbles
over to me and leans his entire weight against me. “Toro,” I whisper,
and I trace the black line between his eyes, smooth my hands over his
head, down his sides. I rub his soft ears, over and over. “It’s so hard,
I know. It’s so hard.” I think of the stories my cousin told me. All the
times Toro has been hit, flipped over the hoods of cars. Gotten up,
shaken it off. Has he been hit again? My aunt won’t take him to the vet.
He’s a Rez dog now.
’ach’į nahwii’ná: “to have trouble; to have difficulty; to suffer”
My mother was homeless in the six months leading up to her death, and she
never called to ask me for help.
’achó: “maternal great grandfather”
Young and Morgan’s dictionary tells me ’achó means maternal great-grandmother, that ’acho’ is not gendered. I am too embarrassed to ask,
too scared my voice will betray me on the rising “O.”
’ádaa ’áhojilyą́: “He takes care of himself; he is on the alert.”
My father would never admit his own violence, though I remember it like
a mirage in the desert—the images came back to me in shimmers, a
disturbing gloss over the horizon.
’ádaadahalni’go: “when they tell about themselves”
When my mother dies, I am the one who must go through her things: her
diaries, her letters, her photographs. She says things in writing she
would never say to me herself, and I feel some validation. I let my
cousin read some of her entries: there is truth in their stories, truth
in our memories, if only we could let ourselves believe them.
’ádaadin: “They are none of them; they are nonexistent, they are absent.”
Dr. William Morgan, Sr., the linguist and translator for both Navajo
dictionaries, passed away, in 2001. He was eighty-five years old, nearly
twice the age of my mother when she died. He received an honorary
doctorate from the University of New Mexico and taught at Cornell, the
University of New Mexico, and the Navajo Community College. According to
his obituary, he left behind nineteen grandchildren and nineteen
great-grandchildren. And though he is gone, he left a cultural legacy
that will survive him and his children’s children’s children, perhaps.
’ádaadinídíí: “the ones that are gone; absentees; decedents”
I am unsure how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren survived
Pauline Tom; there are too many blank spaces on the family tree my
mother left behind. Many of my questions have no answers; the ones who
could answer them are gone.
’ádaadzaa: “They did.”
I find out after I leave that my cousin is back with her boyfriend.
’ádaadzaa yę́égi ’át’éego: “like they did”
My mother would leave the men who hit her, but she would always take
’ádaadzaaígi ’át’éego: “like they did”
I should know better, but I don’t. I hook up with men from the Internet
and drive long distances to meet them in hotel rooms. I let them tie me
up, bruise my skin with ropes and clamps and leather, tear me up, and
make me bleed. I tell myself that it’s O.K. because I let them—that I am
the one with the power. I cannot tell if it is a lie, or if there is
truth there, too.
’ádąąh dahosíst’ą́: “I committed a crime.”
I should not have taken her home. I should have spoken the words I meant
to say. That we are worthy. That there is another path. That we can
weave a rug of our own design. I started to look for those words but did
not find them; I found only the same ghosts haunting the page.
This piece was drawn from “This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home,” edited by by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, which is out November 14th from Seal Press.