Navajo Language Academy, Inc.

NLA History


Since the early 1970s a number of Navajo linguists and educators have worked together to further the goals of Navajo language scholarship through research on Navajo grammar, the development of pedagogical materials, and work in language planning. During the 1970s and 1980s, these scholars helped to organize and teach summer Navajo linguistics workshops at Flagstaff, Ganado, Hunters Point, Rough Rock, Tohatchi, Kinlichee, and Navajo Community College (now Diné College), Tsaile. Funding for the workshops often came through the Diné Bi'ólta' Association, Inc. a private Navajo organization and the US Department of Education, along with private contributions. Ken Hale often taught verb structure at these workshops and he wrote Navajo Linguistics vols I - IV for these courses. A result of this and other work, the now defunct Navajo Language Society, Inc. began work on establishing a Navajo Language Academy. The idea went beyond planning but it was not established due to lack of funds and eventually, in the 1980’s, NLS ceased to exist. Before it went out, NLS published a series of quarterly journals under the title of Diné Bizaad Náníl’ªªh/Navajo Language Review.  Also in 1973, many student papers on Navajo linguistics from the workshop were printed in "Studies of Navajo Linguistics" (Platero 1973). Unfortunately other products resulting from the workshops did not get into print but were duplicated and shared with the workshop participants.

1996 brought renewed talk of establishing a permanent institution that could draw on the skills of the Navajo linguists. That April, the Athabaskan Conference on Syntax & Semantics at Swarthmore College brought together a number of scholars from the workshops of the 1970s. This led to renewed interest in collaborative work on Navajo linguistics. In the summer of 1996 Alyse Neundorf (University of New Mexico, Gallup) convened an open meeting in Window Rock to discuss establishing an academy. Harry Walters (Diné College, Tsaile) hosted a second meeting in Tsaile, Arizona that December. In the summer of 1997, Diné College provided space for the research group to convene for five weeks of intensive work on syntax and semantics. The participants were Ted Fernald (Swarthmore College), Ken Hale (MIT), Lorene Legah (Diné College, Window Rock), Alyse Neundorf, Ellavina Perkins, Paul Platero (then a fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities), Peggy Speas (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and MaryAnn Willie (University of Arizona). The following summer, the group convened for a 10 day workshop at Rehoboth, New Mexico. The previous year's group was joined by Nicole Horseherder, who was finishing her Master's Degree at the University of British Columbia, and Carlota Smith (University of Texas, Austin). During this workshop, articles of incorporation were drawn up and the Navajo Language Academy, Inc. officially came into existence. That same summer a grant request was submitted to the Education Committee of the Navajo Nation Council. The grant was approved and this provided funding for a five week NLA institute in the summer of 1999.

The 1999 NLA Institute was directed by Linda Platero and was held at Rehoboth, New Mexico. The NLA rented space from the Rehoboth Christian School, a facility with classrooms and dormitories available, and offered four courses for Navajo language teachers and scholars. Undergraduate or graduate credit was arranged through the University of New Mexico. Most of the participants in the previous years' workshops served as instructors for the 1999 Institute. Two of the courses were of a theoretical nature: Introduction to Linguistics and an Advanced Research in Linguistics. The third course was Language Acquisition, and the fourth was the Course and Curriculum Development for Navajo language courses. Twenty-seven students completed two courses each. MaryAnn Willie taught the introductory course; Leonard Faltz (Arizona State University), Ted Fernald, and Ken Hale teamed up for the research course; Joyce McDonough (University of Rochester), Bill Poser (Carrier Nation), and Carlota Smith co-taught the language acquisition course; and Lorene Legah and Ellavina Perkins taught the course on curriculum and course materials. The students for the Institute were identified by running advertisements in two newspapers, The Navajo Times and The Gallup Independent. Most of the students were Navajo language teachers or teacher’s aides from K through 12th grade, although the Institute also attracted several people from other professions.

Two things were unusual about the theoretical courses offered at the 1999 Institute. First, MaryAnn Willie conducted most of the introductory course in Navajo; as far as we know, no theoretical linguistics course had been taught in Navajo before. Second, the research course focused on the structure of the verb. Understanding the verb is crucial to understanding the grammar of any Athabaskan language, and yet a course on the verb is not generally available in other institutions, so that many of our students, who themselves are Navajo language teachers, had not ever studied the structure of the verb before. We hope to modify the Curriculum Development course over the years so that Navajo language pedagogy can benefit from advances in the research of Navajo grammar.

Most of the funds used in the 1999 Institute went to cover expenses for students. They were provided with tuition, room, board, books, and a stipend. Expensive as they were, these expenditures were absolutely necessary. Teachers are not paid enough during the academic year to allow them to take the summer off to go to school. If the NLA could not cover their expenses and provide some additional money, fairly few teachers would have been able to attend the Institute.

In the summer of 2000, the staff from the 1999 Institute met for three weeks at Swarthmore College to collaborate on research and make plans for a 2001 Institute. The participants finished the articles in Fernald & Hale (2000) that summer.

In July 2001 the group again convened at Rehoboth. The workshop organizers planned a two-week workshop for scholars who had significant experience with linguistics. A few weeks before the workshop was scheduled to begin word came that a group of 13 teachers and teachers’ aides from the school district at Ch’ooshgai, New Mexico planned to attend. A participant from Ch’ooshgai had attended the 1999 Institute and recommended that they attend. School administrators are often not aware what it takes to teach a language. They sometimes think that if you can speak Navajo you are qualified to teach it. Because they are fluent speakers of the language they can produce all the verbs they want whenever they need them. But because verb structure is so complicated many teachers tend to avoid verbs altogether in the classroom. Instead they teach lists of nouns, numbers, and colors. The result is that students can point to a cow and call it béégashii, but they can’t say what the cow is doing.

In some cases even for teachers who have had training the training has not been very strong. Some training classes for prospective teachers have not gone beyond the sound system before the course ends. Other courses jumped straight from phonetics to reading with no attempt to teach grammar. This does not give prospective teachers much to go by when they have their own classroom. The newly trained teachers would avoid tackling grammar for two reasons: lack of adequate training and lack of sufficient literature to support and supplement a "real" Navajo language course. This has been a widespread problem.

To do something useful for the Ch’ooshgai group at the 2001 NLA Workshop, Ken Hale taught a course on the structure of the verb using Leonard Faltz’s (1998) book The Navajo Verb as a text. Ken had been through a treatment of chemotherapy shortly before the workshop but taught valiantly each morning of the workshop. He would conduct class each day for about 75 minutes. Then he would give everyone a problem to work on while he rested for 20 minutes or so. Then he would come back and discuss the problem for another 15 minutes to half an hour.

To make the verb structure course more immediately relevant, the workshop included demonstrations by Irene Silentman of the teaching philosophy of Situational Navajo, a book developed by the Navajo Language Project, operated by Wayne Holm, along with Irene Silentman and Laura Wallace. The idea of Situational Navajo is to use classroom situations to teach a limited number of forms of a single verb at a time. In addition to the planned course sessions the workshop included time to discuss various matters including language retention efforts and what kinds of reference materials would be useful for teachers and scholars to have.

Ken Hale passed away in October 2001. The course on Navajo verb structure was the last course he taught. Ken’s ethic of using linguistic research in the service of the community has become the guiding principle of the NLA.

The 2002 and 2003 workshops ran for three weeks and both were held in Rehoboth. In 2002 Siri Tuttle (now of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks) taught a mini course on the structure of the verb and Ted Fernald taught a course on Semantics and Pragmatics. The workshop was small but dynamic that year. The workshop was larger in 2003 with a peak attendance of over 25 people. Joyce McDonough taught a one-week course on phonetics followed by a week-long course on verb structure. Peggy Speas and Ellavina Perkins taught a three-week course on Syntax and Lorene Legah and Carlota Smith taught a three-week course that combined language acquisition with curriculum design.

In 2004 the workshop moved to the College of Eastern Utah’s San Juan Campus in Blanding, Utah. Participation numbers were high with a peak of about 35 participants. Leonard Faltz taught a Verb Structure course, Elly van Gelderen (Arizona State University) taught Syntax, Irene Silentman taught a course on Situational Navajo, and Ellavina Perkins and Ted Fernald taught a course on Advanced Topics in Syntax and Semantics. All courses ran for three weeks.

The 2005 workshop will be held at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The NLA has benefited from participation of scholars from various traditions. This group began with Ken Hale’s involvement so naturally there have always been linguists from the generative grammar tradition. But, as seems to be the current attitude at the Athabaskan Language Conference, Athabaskan languages are complicated enough that scholars feel the need for all the help they can get. The NLA has been strengthened by linguists in the functionalist school and other linguists interested in descriptive work.

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