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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Diné College Keeps Navajo Traditions Alive

FARMINGTON — Ceremonies are one of the most private parts of Navajo culture, and a class at Diné College is bucking tradition to ensure they don't disappear.

Part of Diné College's required Navajo and Indian studies curriculum is a series of classes that teach everything essentially Navajo — from language to culture and history.

But they also teach something much more fundamental, and in the past, reserved for a select few.

The Navajo studies requirement embraces Navajo ceremonies: the heart of the Navajo understanding of the world, something that never was taught in English prior to the college's program.

The ceremonies class explores fundamental rites that are essential to the Navajo understanding of healing and the way the world is ordered.

"The goal is to get students familiarized with what ceremonies are and how they are used," said Navajo Singer, or medicine man, and part-time Diné College teacher Harry Walters. "The goal is not to turn all the students into singers."

To make things even more untraditional, the classes are taught in both Navajo and English, and they don't enforce the oral tradition focus — students get to take notes.

"I learned by listening, not by stealing people's tongues," said Navajo singer Francis Mitchell, who wouldn't comment on the college's ceremonies curriculum. "My grandfather knew when I was taking notes; he said I was taking his songs."

With one look at the ceremonial bundle Mitchell was workinghard to wrap, his grandfather knew he was memorizing to write down later.

"Writing it down was stealing the song," said Mitchell, who wouldn't let notes be taken during his interview. "Songs belong to the singer."

Diné College requires nine to 10 credit hours of Navajo language and cultural studies to graduate.

The reason for the requirement, according to college officials, is to make sure that nothing gets lost.

Walters said the Navajo Nation is fighting a strange form of extinction: not one of people dying, but one of important cultural aspects being threatened because of a decreasing population of fluent Navajo language speakers.

"Our people aren't dying, but our songs are getting harder to sing," Walters said. "That's why we use both Navajo and English. There are ideas that can only be sung in Navajo, but for our youth we also need English."

Walters believes it's important to keep the Navajo ceremonies and culture current because the ceremonies have the power to affect everyday life, regardless of whether an individual is a singer.

"A lot of things, they die, but this isn't one," Walters said. "The whole idea is that there is an order in nature, an order in how things interact. The sky — the sun is warm, there is rain, wind and air, life comes from that. These are things that Navajo youth can use in their own lives."

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