Professor Q&A: Bruce Duthu

by Timothy Connor | 10/30/14 7:56pm

This year’s Navajo Nation presidential election has spurred dispute over a requirement that candidates speak fluent Navajo. Following legal questions, one candidate, Chris Deschene is considering dropping out of the race over concerns about his proficiency. We sat down with Native American Studies program chair Bruce Duthu to discuss the place of language in the evolving Navajo Nation and the implications of this debate.

How does the language requirement play into this year’s Navajo Nation presidential election?

BD: The Navajo Nation, like many tribes, uses its constitution and its bylaws to not only establish the requisite leadership structure that it wants but also integrates requirements that will ensure cultural continuity in whatever way works for that community. Navajo Nation has decided that, when it comes to its top-tier leadership, which includes the president, members of the Supreme Court, that those members should not only know about the culture but also be fluent in the Navajo language. The reason for that is that so much of Navajo culture and traditional and customary law is encoded within the language, its their history basically. For an effective leader to be elected by the people, it’s incumbent on the nation to ensure that requirement, because with the loss of language, without fluency in the language, there’s a concern that they will not be able to really articulate, from a cultural standpoint, what are the necessary steps for effective governance in the Navajo Nation. The challenge here is how to assess fluency. What standard is appropriate for the nation to ensure they’re being faithful to this requirement in the interest of cultural continuity, but at the same time do not indirectly close out younger members of the tribe from assuming leadership positions, who may through no fault of their own not be fluent in the language? So it’s an interesting convergence of cultural issues and historical factors, where the Navajo, like most tribes in the U.S., have endured and have successfully withstood pressure from external agents – missionary, federal and state actors – who work actively to stomp out any vestige of indigenous culture, including the language. They are probably the largest tribe, in terms of membership, to still retain their language, but these efforts at eliminating or diminishing the influence of the language have been successful, so they struggle. Even though they have a lot of members who speak the language today, they still struggle in terms of assuring that fluency across the generations. That’s the challenge. [Deschene] is a fairly young candidate, the one who is still working to get onto the ballot, and that’s what I mean by the historical confluence here, he represents that generation that through no fault of his own did not get the kind of access to language retention and fluency. Should that be a disqualifier? It’s not just fulfilling the requirement; it’s understanding the historical context for why there may not be the level of fluency that the tribe wants. A vote or the resolution of this issue will have, I think, deeper implications than just whether this guy gets to be on the ballot or not. It’s almost a moment for the tribe to encounter this historical legacy.

How important is this decision for both the Navajo and for the wider Native American community?

BD: I think it’s critical because for both Native societies and the non-Native society, indigenous languages, like many languages, are vehicles for capturing cultural values and norms, and that can apply not just to government structures and standards by which we interrelate in terms of justice and equity — there’s also a tremendous amount of indigenous knowledge about the operation of the natural world. Notions of ecological knowledge, understandings about how the natural world works were often captured in indigenous language. As that language looses its vitality and its qualities, we lose that knowledge that science may or may not be able to replicate, at least not yet. People who have lived in a space for thousands of years have this accumulated body of traditional, ecological knowledge that is at risk, and in some places is already gone, which is a loss to all of society.

How widespread has loss of language been across the country?

BD: There are many tribes for whom the indigenous language is gone, including my tribe. I belong to the Houma tribe, which is one of the communities indigenous to Louisiana. I grew up in Louisiana. Our language is from a family group related to Choctaw – in other words, the Muskogean native languages are grouped just like Romance languages have several specific languages. Our family group of languages in the Southeast is Muskogean. That’s one of the predominant language families of which there are many branches, and Choctaw is one of them. My tribe’s language was another. Members still spoke the language, but in fewer numbers as recently as the early part of the twentieth century. My grandfather knew elders who still spoke the native language. But even by then, the majority of tribal members had adopted French as their first language. It was the language of trade between French settlers and members of my tribe. There’s a long history of French and Indian intermarriage in my community, so French became the predominant language well into the twentieth century. It was my first language. I learned French first, and then when I started school I learned English, but the indigenous language is no longer spoken at all. There are also many tribes that are working actively to revitalize the language, and in fact we teach a whole course – one of our colleagues in linguistics is offering a course on language revitalization, professor [Lindsay] Whaley, and it’s cross-listed between linguistics and Native American studies to sort of document this phenomenon of tribes trying to recapture [their languages]. There are a variety of strategies, depending on what the sources are. Do you still have a few elders who speak the language? Is there a written record of some major work that was translated in the original language that can be a basis for recapturing the vocabulary and the structure?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.