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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 5, 2003 - Issue 84


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Reading Navajo Literature

by Betty Reid - The Arizona Republic
credits: Photo - Phoenix College instructor Hershman John teaches Navajo Literature at Phoenix College.
Meredith Hearn/The Arizona Republic

Phoenix College instructor Hershman John teaches Navajo Literature at Phoenix College.Phoenix College instructor Hershman John warned students in his Navajo literature course that they would not be reading Tony Hillerman.

Not one dropped his class.

Mind you, he is not picking on Hillerman, a renowned mystery author whose characters are Navajo police officers and whose stories are set in Navajo Country.

The young Navajo professor, from Sandsprings in northern Arizona, extracts the work of other Native American literary giants such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko or Louise Erdrich. He uses the work of Navajo authors, poets, storytellers and writers to deliver instruction.

"I don't want someone else telling our stories," Hershman said. "This is a course about Navajo literature. I don't teach history."

Hershman defines Navajo literature as ranging from stories and poems published in the English language to prayers in the oral Navajo language. Textbooks students read this semester at Phoenix College include Irvin Morris' From the Glittering World, Luci Tapahonso's Saánii Dahataal and Laura Tohe's No Parole Today.

For comparison, Hershman uses films such as Windtalkers to document work about the famed Navajo code talkers, who turned the oral Navajo language into a code to confound the Japanese during World War II. He also uses the contemporary history work of Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel's Dine for reference.

Losing one's identity or an aspect of a tradition is a running theme in Navajo writing. The matrilineal presence in Navajo society also stands out, although there isn't a word for feminism in the Navajo language.

Another theme that threads Navajo literature is teaching stories, especially those told during winter nights. Coyote stories, as told in oral creation stories and written in children's literature, are a good example, Hershman said.

The 30-year-old professor joined Phoenix College in 1995 and began teaching English, creative writing and American Indian literature. It took a year to design and craft the class, unheard of at universities and colleges in the 1970s.

"It was rare to have Native teachers at colleges in the past. You had older White men teaching literature," Hershman said.

"There are a lot of Navajo telling their own stories today. We have Navajo authors, who are young and old, full blood or half Navajo, urban or reservation residents, educated to those who tell oral stories."

One percent of the college's students is Navajo, many of whom enter the community college from the Phoenix Union High School District.

"It fits with the times," Hershman said. "A lot of my students are urban Navajos. Some are Navajos who attend schools here on a scholarship. They grew up on the reservation and feel disconnected from Navajo land as residents of the city."

He believes there is demand for such classes. Eight students signed up for his midday classes this semester.

Jackson Harris, 40, grew up in Farmington, N.M. She is Navajo and is eager to learn about Navajo literature.

"I really don't have too much background about our people," said Harris, who has read much about the Navajo Long Walk, a forced march of the Navajos by the U.S. Cavalry in 1864. "I hear and read about it from so many different people and so many different walks of life, and it's all about Navajo. Everybody has a different perspective on it. And I think it's important that we see where they get their thoughts and how they look at what happened to our people."

Alex Turner, 26, a Phoenix resident, said he signed up for the course curious about "the warrior" aspect of the Navajo. He served in the Army with Navajos but was unaware of their culture, background and history.

Turner said he learned a lot.

"I learned about their struggles, and I've learned that, faced with great barrier, that they've risen up," Turner said. "And they hold onto so much of their legacy and heritage. It's so lost now in our society."

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