The Mother Tongue

navajo2_webLanguage is culture. The Navajo language is Navajo culture. When one changes, so does the other. Many ceremonies and cultural activities peculiar to and associated with the language that my grandparents spoke are now gone.

I will never experience the Navajo associated with that worldview. It is gone forever. But language is alive. When it diminishes in one area, it expands in another. In Navajo, we adopt new words to articulate contemporary concepts and objects like neuro-immunology and computers. We strive to maintain the integrity of tradition while accommodating an ever-changing world.

Although cultures may evolve and languages may change with the times, certain linguistic and cultural associations function as inalienable, immutable forces that keep us Navajos. One such force is the notion of k’e—relationship building that is linguistically and culturally Navajo. Within our clanship system, a 96-year-old grandmother may call me “Daddy.” On Navajo, when I talk about all my children, everyone understands. Off Navajo, I am often asked how many children I have and it is demanded of me to explain how one of my children can be 46 years older than me. I used to try, but now I don’t even bother. My reality in Navajo needs no explanation in English to a non-Navajo worldview.

This peculiar relationship allows our elders to be childlike again. It allows them to be goofy without being ridiculed. They use this opportunity to ask of me as their father things that I cannot provide them. Through these interactions, they teach me how to be a caring and loving father to my own children, passing on lifelong lessons of parenting. At the same time, they would tease my children as brothers and sisters, establishing lasting and valuable relationships. These elders and my children bond together for life, respecting and loving one another as siblings.

In Navajo, we call our biological nieces “mothers.” From birth they are our mothers; our kinship demands that we respect them as matriarchs. Our interactions with them must help them become mothers and leaders of the family. Knowing this, I do my part, misbehaving and allowing them to chastise me for being foolish. In so doing, we begin to train them to become matriarchs.

Video: Rex Lee Jim, on his interest in langauge

They learn quickly. On her first day at school as a kindergartener, my youngest niece was running around when her teacher asked her to stop. When she refused, her teacher said, “I am going to tell your uncle, the school board president.”

“What uncle?” she responded.


“He’s not my uncle; he’s my son. I tell him what to do!”

The Navajo teacher realized what was going on. “Well, I will tell your ‘mother’ Janice (the ‘aunt’) at the high school.” My niece settled down right away.

The Navajo language allows us to develop intimate and unique relationships, which is the foundation of strong, healthy communities. When we no longer speak the language, what makes us distinct and unique will be gone. We will be speakers of English with brown skins. The Navajo community will no longer be.

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