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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 29, 2002 - Issue 64


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Mother Tries to Save Navajo Heritage

by Joelle Babula Las Vegas Review Journal
credits: Photos by Amy Beth Bennett.
Edmonda Betsuie, 18, and her grandmother, Etta Denny, are both full-blooded Navajo American Indians.

That's where the similarities end.

Edmonda speaks only English; Denny, 72, speaks only Navajo. Edmonda lives in Las Vegas, has blond highlights in her hair and wants to be an architect. Denny lives on a reservation in Utah with no phone, electricity or running water.

In just two generations, much of this Navajo family's culture, language and history has been lost, says Edmonda's mother, Matilda Betsuie.

In hopes of helping inspire the family's youngest to embrace the Navajo culture and learn the language, Matilda and 40 other extended family members, in town to celebrate her daughter's high school graduation, saw the new movie "Windtalkers" Saturday night.

The movie depicts the Navajo code talkers who helped U.S. soldiers during World War II. The code talkers, protected by U.S. forces, encoded and transmitted battlefield messages.

"I had hoped the kids would see that our language was so significant, it was used on behalf of the whole United States," Matilda said. "But the movie just didn't cut it. It was more a story about a white guy in a war than it was about code talkers."

Matilda, 37, now a law student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said her late father's friend was a code talker during the war.

"He said it was ironic being protected by a Caucasian during the war after years of getting punished in school for speaking Navajo," she said.

Matilda has been trying to teach her two children about their heritage since Edmonda was born but said it has been hard because they no longer live on the reservation. Matilda and her husband are fluent in the Navajo language.

Edmonda was born on the reservation but moved to Las Vegas with her family when she was 5 years old.

"The kids have to talk to their grandmother through me," Matilda said. "She (Denny) always comes down on me and asks me why I didn't teach them the language. I tried, but it was just easier to get my point across in English because that's what they were learning in school. I regret it now."

Edmonda speaks very little Navajo and wishes she was fluent so she could talk to her grandmother.

"I definitely want my own kids to learn the language some day," she said. "If I can't teach them, my mom will have to."

Matilda said she is prepared to do for her grandchildren what she didn't do for her own children: speak to them in Navajo.

"It's going to take a great effort on my part, but I want to teach my grandkids the language. My own kids have already lost so much of our background and culture."

Edmonda may not speak Navajo very well, but she is learning about her culture's strong belief in the importance of family. Her aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents traveled from New Mexico, Utah and Arizona to watch her graduate Saturday from Las Vegas High School.

She has enrolled at UNLV and plans to study architecture.

"I am proud of my culture," Edmonda said. "I am living out here, so far away from family. I was surprised by how many people showed up to my graduation, even relatives I haven't seen in the longest time. It was nice to see the family all together."

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