The last of the many activities in this frenetic summer was moving from Montreal to California by car. In spite of a tight timing, we were able to squeeze in little treats along the 6000 kilometres of the route. One of them was a quick visit to Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. Known to linguists for their their Athabaskan language and to the general public for a very complex spirituality in their approach to life, the Navajo live in a breathtaking land and have a fascinating history.
Navajo is the most spoken indigenous language in the US, with nearly 170,000 speakers according to the 2006-10 census. A Southern Athabaskan language, Navajo has a classical phonological inventory with a small set of vowels (4, although contrasted for nasality, tone and length) when compared to its more than 30 consonants, with aspirated, ejective and glottal features. Both verbs and nouns are preceded by a series of affixes, and although it is sometimes described as an SOV language, it has also been argued that it actually is a discourse-configurational language (Willie and Jelinek 2000).
The Navajo language has been dwindling in the past decades, although at a slower rate than the vast majority of North American indigenous languages. Generalized everyday use of the language is attested by approximately 50% of speakers since the 1990s, although the rates of monolingual English-speaking children in the reservation keep rising. Nowadays there are a couple of schools that have immersion programs in Navajo, from kindergarten on.
Most of the Navajo today live in a delimited area in the “Four Corners” region between Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. In the 1860s the Navajo were deported by the US Army and forcibly relocated in Bosque Redondo, almost 500km away from their homeland. This forced exile, the Long Walk, and the return to the Navajo land in 1868, is one of the events in modern history that shaped Navajo society the most. Upon their return from Bosque Redondo, the Navajo secured the territories that became the “Navajo Indian Reservation,” which today make up the renamed Navajo Nation, an area of 71,000 km2. An administrative capital was established in the 1930s in the area next to the “rock with a hole through it”, today’s Window Rock.
As a European working on Amazonian languages, it’s sometimes too easy to forget that North America too was virtually full of thriving indigenous communities before it became what we can see today. Just like when we visited the Mohawk at Kahnawà:ke, visiting the Navajo Nation had a very special feeling. Arriving at Gallup, trading the highway for a small road that entered the Navajo Nation, crossing over to Arizona near Window Rock, visiting the Navajo Nation Museum (where we were kindly let in after closing time), a few trading posts, seeing the breathtaking Window Rock… There are not many places like this in the Americas, and it’s always a privilege to witness it personally.
Willie, Mary and Jelinek, Eloise. 2000. “Navajo as a Discourse Configurational Language”. In Theodore Fernald and Paul Platero, eds. Athabaskan Syntax: Perspectives on a Language Family.