Revitalizing the Diné language for the next generation

October 22, 2023 - Geneva Sandoval Dinallo

A study by Professor and Chair of the Department of Native American Studies, Tiffany S. Lee, and colleagues is making significant strides toward sustaining the Diné language and cultural heritage.  Her longitudinal study, titled, “Improving research to understand the link between holistic well-being of Diné children and families, and Diné bizaad,” is dedicated to supporting Diné language revitalization and continuity.  

Thanks to the support of the Community-Based Research Initiative (CBRI), which is a co-sponsored funding opportunity through the Center for Regional Studies (CRS) and the College of Arts & Sciences, Lee and her colleagues intend to not only to sustain the Diné language but to also nurture a sense among Diné children of being “whole, well, and grounded in their cultural heritage and identity.”

The project embodies the Diné concept of "t’áá Diné," or identity of the people, to foster an environment where children are encouraged to be “t’áá Diné,” or deeply rooted in the Diné cultural identity, which will ultimately shape their entire outlook on life. 

The essence of "t’áá Diné" lies in shaping the minds, behaviors, and perceptions of Diné children through a firm foundation of Diné worldview and values. To achieve this, the project will identify key indicators of a child thriving in a "t’áá Diné" environment.

This information will serve three crucial purposes: ensuring the comprehensive well-being of Diné children, strengthening the connection between language learning and wellbeing, and advocating for the value of "t’áá Dinéjí" (in the way of the Diné) through empirical data.

The groundwork for the project was laid through a series of listening sessions held last year. Educators and families from partner schools, despite varying contexts, shared similar Diné-based values and perspectives on developmental milestones and indicators of well-being.  

These shared values highlight the interconnectedness of language learning and cultural identity. One educator stated during an initial listening session that language learning reinforces the identity of youth because “They come to know and see the foods, celebrations, dances, and songs and see that it makes them unique and different from another. They have the support to validate and confirm their identity.” 

The data shared from these listening sessions will be transcribed, organized, and analyzed so that they can then be shared with the participating educators, families, and youth who participated. 

The project will then incorporate the innovative research method known as "Photovoice," enabling participants to express their ideas and perspectives on language learning and wellbeing through photographic images. This inclusive approach goes beyond oral or written expressions in English, ensuring a deeper, more comprehensive understanding. 

Recognizing the negative history of research among Indigenous communities, the research team comprises Diné experts from various fields, emphasizing cultural alignment and respect. This is the last major step for Lee’s plan because it aids in strengthening the relationship with Diné communities in a research environment. 

The team's unique approach includes the creation of a Diné song, with the guidance of Diné cultural consultants, as a symbol of the relationship forged with the community and school partners. This cultural protocol strengthens "k’é" (kinship and relationship), fostering meaningful connections and relationships beyond the research team. 

Indigenous knowledge holders often employ songs and ceremonies for teaching purposes. After mastering the song, the team intends to share and sing it during their interactions with community participants, thereby integrating it into their research methodology, reinforcing and fortifying k'é.  

The research has a notable emphasis on Diné cultural protocols, and the team plans to enhance their connections with community partners with the Diné song. The song's purpose is to symbolize the evolving relationships within the team and with the community/school partners, a practice shared by various Indigenous communities, including the Diné, Maori, and Hawaiian.  

This project aligns perfectly with the global initiative declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), designating this decade as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. Its significance extends beyond the Diné people to Indigenous language communities worldwide, particularly in New Mexico.  

“Our research is significant because Indigenous languages worldwide are under threat. International Organizations like UNESCO have responded...making such focus timely and highly relevant for not only Diné people, but any Indigenous language and bi/multilingual communities in New Mexico,” said Lee.  

In collaboration with the Center for Regional Studies, the CBRI aims to engage and further projects that address contemporary challenges in New Mexico or the Southwest region. These projects are led by a faculty member from the College of Arts & Sciences and focus on developing practical solutions for real-life issues faced by communities in the 21st century. 

Support from the CBRI will aid them in the continuation of their research goals which are in direct collaboration with Diné communities. This project will assist in developing additional proposals and networking with other Indigenous communities to share what they learn.

“Our project is very unique with our focus on Diné communities by Diné researchers. What we will learn will be applicable and useful for many Native communities across the U.S. and beyond to learn from and build a network together,” Lee said. 

Lee extends gratitude to the team working on this project, which is “made up of Diné researchers and community members who each bring knowledge and skills to enhance our research.”

The UNM team consists of Lee; Melvatha Chee, assistant professor of Linguistics and director of the Navajo Language Program; Tamera Yazzie, program coordinator in Linguistics; and Wendy Greyeyes, associate professor of Native American Studies.  

Members of the team outside of UNM include Chenoah bah Stillwell-Jensen, cultural care provider at First Nations Community Health Source; James McKenzie, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona; and Miltina Chee, child development specialist. Other partners involve the educational sites of a local Diné language nest, and a trilingual elementary school with a Diné language program.  

“We are a team that is Diné in all aspects of this project, and by the completion of this project the research can be replicated by other Native communities who are interested in leading research within their own Nation.”