Culture is dynamic. It evolves through time. According to Kuper (1994) culture is “learned, adaptable, symbolic behavior, based on a full-fledged language” (cited in Monagham & Just, 2000, p.51). Language expresses many things about a particular culture. Apart from speech, other ways of communication such as symbols, gestures, written characters, drawings, and artistic expressions comprise a peoples’ language. It serves as the foundation of culture because it unifies the members of a particular society. Through language, people communicate with each other to identify their issues, problems, and concerns. They are then able to make decisions regarding problems existing within their community.
The Navajo American Indians of the United States have a very rich language. These are expressed not only through oral communication but also through their arts. For centuries, they have passed on their language to succeeding generations and along with it are their worldviews, customs, and traditions. The Navajo have the largest population among the American Indians. Traditionally pastoralists, the indigenous peoples reside in reservations located in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. In the 1970s, educators recognized the advantages of using the child’s mother tongue in school. Children at Rough Rock, Arizona attended school and were taught using their own Navajo language (McCarty, 1977). The experience at Rough Rock was a precursor of the bilingual education that the American education implements today.
This paper looks into how the use of the Navajo language has contributed to the perpetuation of the Navajo culture. Despite being exposed to the modern ways of American society, which occurs through contacts with non-Navajos during employment, school, and trade, the Navajo Indians are able to maintain the richness of their culture. A study of their language enables the outsider to learn more about their culture. There are specific aspects in their culture that are manifested in the language. These would include kinship, beliefs and values, and sickness and healing. Kinship is defined by Witherspoon (1996) as a “set of concepts, beliefs and attitudes which are embodied in symbols found in culturally defined reproductive processes” (p. 14). The Navajo beliefs and values are likewise present in both the spoken language and their art. The word “hozho” for instance refer to beauty and beautiful conditions which includes health, happiness and harmony (Witherspoon, 1977). Sickness and healing are very much part of Navajo culture. Csordas (2000) maintains that it is a “central theme” of the Navajo religion, while the sacred is the “central element in their medicine” (p.463). There have been documented accounts of sick Navajo patients who were not recovering from hospital care becoming better through their traditional rituals. The detailed discussion of the concepts are presented in specific sections of the paper. The order of presentation shall follow the outline below.
a. Definition of kinship and words referring to kinship
b. Cultural practices showing importance given to kinship
III. Beliefs and Values
a. Description and examples of words pertaining to beliefs in deities, world views, and specific values
IV. Sickness and Healing
a. Definitions of health and function of healing in the culture
b. Cause of sickness and rituals for healing
Csordas, T.J. (2000). The Navajo healing project. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 14 (4), 463-475.
McCarty, T.L. (2002). A place to be Navajo: Rough Rock and the struggle for self-determination in indigenous schooling. USA: Routledge.
Monagham, J. & Just, P. (2000). Social and Cultural Anthropology: A very short introduction. GBR: Oxford University Press.
Witherspoon, G. (1977). Language and art in the Navajo universe. USA: University of Michigan Press.
Witherspoon, G. (1996). Navajo kinship and marriage. USA: University of Chicago Press.