e first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.
’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”
I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.
’aa ’áhályánii: “bodyguard”
In August of 2015, I move from Boston to Tucson, to join an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I applied to schools surrounding the Navajo reservation because I wanted to be closer to my mother’s family. My plan: to take classes on rug weaving and the Navajo language (Diné Bizaad); to visit my family as often as possible. It will be opened: the door to the path we have lost.
’ąą ’ályaa: “It was opened.”
A PDF version of the Navajo-English dictionary from the University of Northern Colorado. I wonder which librarian there decided to digitize it. Most government documents, after they are shipped to federal depositories around the country, languish on out-of-the-way shelves and collect decades of dust before being deaccessioned and destroyed. I have worked in these libraries—I know.
ąą ’ályaa, bich’į’: “It was opened to them; they were invited.”
One of the reasons Navajo soldiers were recruited as code talkers during the Second World War was because there were no published dictionaries of their language at that time—and because the grammatical structure of the language was so different from English, German, and Japanese. They were invited to: a world beyond the borders of the reservation. My mother always told me the only way to get off the Rez is to join the military or marry off.
’ąą ’át’é: “It is open.”
One of the first typewriters that could adequately record the Navajo language was built for Robert Young, a linguist who also worked with William Morgan and published a more comprehensive dictionary and grammar guide (“The Navaho Language”), in 1972. In the nineteen-seventies, a Navajo font was released for the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter, which would serve as the basis for a digital font on early computers.
’ąą ’át’éego: “since it was open”
Navajo fonts are now available for download in multiple typefaces: Times New Roman, Verdana, and Lucida Sans.
’áádahojoost’įįd: “They quit, backed out, desisted, surrendered.”
Spring. 1864. The “Long Walk” begins. The U.S. Army forcibly relocates the Navajo from their homeland, to Bosque Redondo, in eastern New Mexico. Those who do not resist learn to walk, but death follows both paths.
’aa ’dahoost’įįd, t’óó: “They gave up, surrendered.”
There are many reasons parents do not teach their children the Navajo language: U.S. monolingual policies, violence experienced in boarding schools, and perceived status. Those who speak English well will have a better chance for escape.
’aa dahwiinít’į́iį’: “into court (a place where justice is judicially administered)”
A close cousin of mine is scheduled to testify in court in one week; she isn’t sure if she wants to go. I pick her up anyway. Bring her back to Tucson with me.
’aa deet’ą́: “transfer (of property, or ownership)”
My aunt tells me we have land on the reservation, just off I-40. We’ve inherited it from our great-grandmother, Pauline Tom. Only Pauline Tom had many children, and their children had many children, and after she died, in 2008, all those children started fighting. It’s a common problem, and it isn’t unique to the Navajo Nation. Federal land-allotment policies have resulted in too many heirs for too few acres.
’áadi: “there, over there (a remote place)”
On the drive to Tucson along I-40, my cousin points out the black-tar roofs of our family’s houses, and the cemetery—a small, square piece of land—where our great-grandmother is buried. The cemetery is barely distinguishable from the rest of the landscape, and, when I follow her gaze, look away from the highway, I see only the stark, white faces of the headstones and the silver glint of a ribbon in the wind.
’áádįįł: “It is progressively dwindling away; disappearing.”
In 1968, a decade after the first dictionary was published, ninety per cent of the children on the reservation who entered school spoke Navajo; in 2009, only thirty per cent knew the language (Spolsky, “Language Management for Endangered Languages,” 117).
’áadiísh: “There? Thereat?”
September 22, 2015. The second time I pass our allotment on I-40, I try to find the spot my cousin showed me. I look for the headstones; I think of stopping and trying to find my grandmother’s grave. My cousin told me that if you don’t do the proper blessing, the spirit will follow you home. (She asked me, “What is the difference between a spirit and a ghost?”) I don’t know the blessing, but it doesn’t matter; I can’t recognize the cemetery or my family’s land.
’ąąh ’dahaz’ą́: “illness, sickness, an ailment”
September 19th. I catch a cold from my students. Might be the flu. I tell my cousin to stay away, but she says she won’t get sick. We spend all day curled up on the couch watching “Shameless.” She rests her head on my shoulder, on my hip.
’á’á hwiinít’į́, “kindness”
’aa hwiinít’į́: “trial (at law), molestation”
How are these words (kindness/molestation) that sound so similar so different? My aunt tells my cousin that our maternal grandmother molested her sons. My mother tells me other stories, similar but not the same. (“Why would they tell us that?”) It’s hard to believe, but it isn’t. There will never be a trial. These are words better left unspoken, forgotten, erased.
’aa hwiinít’įįhígíí: “the court session that is to come”
September 16th, 2015. My cousin is told that if she doesn’t appear for the court date, a warrant will be put out for her arrest. I agree to drive her back to Window Rock on Monday night, after I am done teaching for the day. It is a six-hour drive, but I am almost happy to make it. I will be in Window Rock, with my family, on the second anniversary of my mother’s death, not by plan but by circumstance.
’ą́ą́hyiłk’as: “body chill”
I am sick with fever, alive with fever dreams. I dream of a two-story, sandstone motel, its three square walls opening onto the desert. A sun sets between two mountains, and heavy drapes are drawn across all the windows. My mother and my aunt and all my sisters are running in and out of the rooms, slamming doors, shouting at each other from the landings. I understand that each door is a choice, each room a potential future, and that my mother’s and my aunt’s and my sisters’ doors are closed to me.
’aak’ee: “fall, autumn”
I start teaching my first freshman-composition class in the fall. I’m convinced, like most first-year teachers, that I have no idea what I am talking about; I spend the entire hour sweating in front of my class. But, afterward, two dark-haired, dark-skinned girls walk up to me and ask me: What are your clans? Where is your family from? We are Navajo, too. We are all three nervous and unsure where the conversation should go, but I want to grab hold of them and root them next to me; graduation rates of native students are abysmally low.
’ąą kwáániił: “It is expanding; it is getting bigger.”
My cousin disappears in the middle of the night and leaves us a note: Went to Gallup with Heather and Faith need to get pads and face wash. Should be back soon. She leaves us a number, the wrong number. (“She prolly went to see that guy.”)
’aaníí, t’áá, “It is true; truly; really; verily.”
My cousin tells me she didn’t see her boyfriend again. That she went over to Shorty’s and helped him set mouse traps in the middle of the night. He couldn’t do it himself, he kept catching his fingers. But she would tell me if she saw him.
’aaníí, t’áásh: “Is it so? Is it true?”
The answer is, in many ways, unknowable; for our mothers, the surest protection from the past was to spin truths and falsehoods into one story, one thread, impossible to distinguish in the weave.
’ááníłígíí: “that which is occurring; the happening; the event”
I have been walking around the thing that happened, stepping around the truth, trying to protect my cousin from myself.
’áát’įįdę́ę: “what he did; his aforementioned act”
My cousin calls me at four-thirty in the morning, and I answer; her voice is thick with tears. She found out her boyfriend was cheating. She started the fight. I know this story. I know it. These are words better left unspoken; a story better lost to time. Still, I have no words to help her. I will come get you, I tell her. I will bring you home with me.
’abąąh náát’i’: “border, strand (of the warp of a rug)”
A Navajo blanket is woven on a loom and will never outgrow its frame. Do we finish the story our mothers began, or do we rip out the weaving and begin anew? It is not so easy to erase or forget the things that have come before us.
’ábi’diilyaa: “He was made to be . . . ”
. . . the kind of man who hits women. He crawled inside his father’s shadow and filled it out.
’ábidiní, ha’át’íí shą’: “What do you mean?”
One of my Navajo students interviews her aunt, who teaches Navajo language classes, and she writes a paper about revitalizing Diné Bizaad. I ask her if she would put me in contact with her aunt to answer some of my own questions. Her aunt agrees to e-mail me her responses, but I am so lost, I don’t know the right questions to ask. I write a rambling e-mail about adjectives and verbs and the state of being, and she never responds.
’abi’doogį́: “He was hauled away.”
When I was little, my mother called the cops on my father, often. Usually after they had both been drinking. I remember standing on the street with our neighbors, watching the cops chase my father down the road, shove him into a police car, and haul him away.
’ábi’dool’įįdii, t’áá ’aaníí bee: “that with which he was really harmed”
What are the roots of domestic violence on the reservation? Inescapable poverty. Powerlessness. Untreated mental illnesses. Self-medication through alcohol. Cycles of abuse: fathers beating mothers beating sons beating their lovers and future mothers.
’ábidoołdįił: “It will annihilate them.”
Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault are higher among Native Americans than any other ethnicity in the United States. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2008 reported that almost forty per cent of Native American women identified as victims of domestic violence during their lifetimes. These are conservative figures; many assaults go unreported.
My first trip to the Rez. I wake before everyone, and slip out of bed and out the door with my aunt’s binoculars. My aunt’s dog, Toro, follows me down the twisting dirt road and into the flowering sagebrush hills. Toro follows his nose off the path, under bushes, over piles of gravel and rock. He misses a pair of cottontails, who bolt out from under my feet as I cross the same ground minutes later; they reach the safety of a hidden burrow before he turns around.
’ách’ą́ą́h: “in front of”
My aunt and her neighbors clear the summer weeds out of the front yard and sweep them into piles. Toro has made a small rabbit’s nest of them; he lies in a tight little ball. I call Toro’s name and he lifts his head, fixes me with red, watery eyes, but he does not move.
’ach’é’é: “daughter, niece (daughter of one’s sister) (female speaking)”
After my mother dies, my aunt tells me that I am her daughter now—that she is my “little mother.” This is how she introduces me to everyone: This is my niece! She’s a teacher at the University of Arizona! This is how everyone responds: Hello, niece.
’ach’é’édą́ą́’: “one’s yard, or dooryard”
My maternal great-grandmother froze to death, and my aunt is shocked that I did not know. I don’t understand because freezing to death in the desert, in the sun, surrounded by yellow sagebrush flowers, doesn’t make sense to me. My aunt tells me that Pauline Tom fell while checking on a noise outside, and she broke her hip in the fall. My aunt curls her hands on her skinny little wrists, mimes our grandmother crawling in the dirt, but she could not crawl far enough. My grandmother froze to death in the winter, in the deep dark of the night, in her own backyard.
’acheii (achaii): “maternal grandfather”
I met my maternal grandfather once, when I was very young. He was a Navajo police officer. When he got sick, my mother and my aunt started fighting over who would take care of him. My aunt talked too soon about pulling the plug, and they stopped speaking for years.
’áchį́į́h: “nose, snout”
I call Toro’s name again, and he stands on quivering legs. He hobbles over to me and leans his entire weight against me. “Toro,” I whisper, and I trace the black line between his eyes, smooth my hands over his head, down his sides. I rub his soft ears, over and over. “It’s so hard, I know. It’s so hard.” I think of the stories my cousin told me. All the times Toro has been hit, flipped over the hoods of cars. Gotten up, shaken it off. Has he been hit again? My aunt won’t take him to the vet. He’s a Rez dog now.
’ach’į nahwii’ná: “to have trouble; to have difficulty; to suffer”
My mother was homeless in the six months leading up to her death, and she never called to ask me for help.
’achó: “maternal great grandfather”
Young and Morgan’s dictionary tells me ’achó means maternal great-grandmother, that ’acho’ is not gendered. I am too embarrassed to ask, too scared my voice will betray me on the rising “O.”
’ádaa ’áhojilyą́: “He takes care of himself; he is on the alert.”
My father would never admit his own violence, though I remember it like a mirage in the desert—the images came back to me in shimmers, a disturbing gloss over the horizon.
’ádaadahalni’go: “when they tell about themselves”
When my mother dies, I am the one who must go through her things: her diaries, her letters, her photographs. She says things in writing she would never say to me herself, and I feel some validation. I let my cousin read some of her entries: there is truth in their stories, truth in our memories, if only we could let ourselves believe them.
’ádaadin: “They are none of them; they are nonexistent, they are absent.”
Dr. William Morgan, Sr., the linguist and translator for both Navajo dictionaries, passed away, in 2001. He was eighty-five years old, nearly twice the age of my mother when she died. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico and taught at Cornell, the University of New Mexico, and the Navajo Community College. According to his obituary, he left behind nineteen grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. And though he is gone, he left a cultural legacy that will survive him and his children’s children’s children, perhaps.
’ádaadinídíí: “the ones that are gone; absentees; decedents”
I am unsure how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren survived Pauline Tom; there are too many blank spaces on the family tree my mother left behind. Many of my questions have no answers; the ones who could answer them are gone.
’ádaadzaa: “They did.”
I find out after I leave that my cousin is back with her boyfriend.
’ádaadzaa yę́égi ’át’éego: “like they did”
My mother would leave the men who hit her, but she would always take them back.
’ádaadzaaígi ’át’éego: “like they did”
I should know better, but I don’t. I hook up with men from the Internet and drive long distances to meet them in hotel rooms. I let them tie me up, bruise my skin with ropes and clamps and leather, tear me up, and make me bleed. I tell myself that it’s O.K. because I let them—that I am the one with the power. I cannot tell if it is a lie, or if there is truth there, too.
’ádąąh dahosíst’ą́: “I committed a crime.”
I should not have taken her home. I should have spoken the words I meant to say. That we are worthy. That there is another path. That we can weave a rug of our own design. I started to look for those words but did not find them; I found only the same ghosts haunting the page.
This piece was drawn from “This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home,” edited by by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, which is out November 14th from Seal Press.