An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 5, 2003 - Issue 84
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
College instructor Hershman John warned students in his Navajo literature
course that they would not be reading Tony Hillerman.
one dropped his class.
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.
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.
don't want someone else telling our stories," Hershman said. "This
is a course about Navajo literature. I don't teach history."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
percent of the college's students is Navajo, many of whom enter the community
college from the Phoenix Union High School District.
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."
believes there is demand for such classes. Eight students signed up for
his midday classes this semester.
Harris, 40, grew up in Farmington, N.M. She is Navajo and is eager to
learn about Navajo literature.
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."
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.
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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