'Back to the Rez': Students Write and Star in Navajo-Language Play

group of students in an intermediate Navajo class

Students in the university's intermediate Navajo class will practice their Navajo language skills onstage this month.

Leslie Epperson/College of Social and Behavioral Sceinces

Navajo was University of Arizona student Shante Yazzie's first language. But once she went to school, she forgot a lot of it.

She later decided to relearn the language so she could communicate with her elders, especially her grandmother, who, before her recent passing, spoke mostly Navajo.

Now enrolled in an intermediate Navajo class at UArizona, Yazzie is one of eight students who will practice their language skills onstage next week when they perform a Navajo-language play they wrote themselves.

Titled "Back to the Rez," the hourlong play revolves around issues of identity and cultural knowledge, focusing on a young person returning to the reservation where they grew up and another young person leaving the reservation to move to the city. A public performance will take place on Nov. 22 at 4 p.m. in Room 100 of the Social Sciences building. Face coverings are required. 

The play will be performed entirely in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, and audience members will be given a playbill with the script and English translations.

This is the third year that the university's intermediate Navajo class has presented a Navajo-language play. In 2018, the play centered on animals; in 2019, it was inspired by "Romeo and Juliet." Last year, the event was canceled due to the pandemic.

Aresta Tsosie-Paddock, who teaches the class, added the play assignment to the course curriculum a few years ago.

Aresta Tsosie-Paddock

Aresta Tsosie-Paddock

Nividita Chatani/College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

"When the students get to intermediate Navajo, I think the play is a good way to apply what they have learned and also to be creative and to put in their experiences," said Tsosie-Paddock, an assistant professor in the Department of American Indian Studies and the Department of Linguistics. "It's an amazing learning experience for them."

The number of fluent Navajo speakers continues to decline as a result of migration and resettlement, English language immersion and English-only policies in schools, and "intergenerational language trauma" that has led to non-transmission of the language, Tsosie-Paddock said. An example of that language trauma, she said, is the American Indian boarding school era from 1860 to 1978, in which many Native American children were forced into boarding schools where they were encouraged to abandon their language and culture. In addition, the death of Native American elders from COVID-19 threatens the cultural transfer of Native languages and traditions, Tsosie-Paddock said.

A citizen of the Navajo Nation, Tsosie-Paddock has dedicated her career to studying the Navajo language, displacement of cultural heritage, Navajo history and philosophy, Native nation building, Indigenous urban studies, and federal American Indian law and policy.

Many of the students in her intermediate Navajo language class, like Yazzie, want to learn the language to speak with family members and elders.

"I'm taking it because my parents also speak fluent Navajo, and I just want to carry that on as well," said Yazzie, who is majoring in mathematics with an emphasis in secondary education. "The play is helping me learn more about the language, since a lot of the sentences are very difficult, so I'm getting help from my peers and professor."

Another student in the class, Carl Tayah-Yazzie – who is not related to Shante Yazzie – grew up in Chinle, Arizona, and also is practicing the Navajo language with family.

"I grew up learning Navajo and slowly speaking it. But then I moved to the city. I moved to Tucson when I was younger and then I moved back home. I feel like I'm learning a lot (in the class) and using it outside the classroom with my family on the reservation," said the American Indian studies and law major,. "One of my grandparents speaks nothing but Navajo, and it would be a blessing to talk to her in the language."

Kevin Wood, who is also in the class, is majoring in linguistics and minoring in American Indian studies.

"My major is focused on language revitalization and documentation," said Wood, who grew up on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and Window Rock, Arizona – the capital of the Navajo Nation. "I was studying other languages and found I wasn't paying as much attention to my own languages. I wanted to dive in and study the Indigenous side of linguistics."

The play also gives Native American students in the class an opportunity to reflect on their culture and community.

"It's fun because of the inside jokes within our communities. We get to make that into a fun play," said Robyn Pete, a student in the class who is double majoring in elementary education and American Indian studies and grew up on the reservation in Window Rock.

By putting on the play, Tsosie-Paddock wants to emphasize the importance of the Navajo language and how it connects to the culture.

"The culture is embedded in the language. And this idea of how to carry yourself, how to be in a good way, is also part of the language," Tsosie-Paddock said. "Philosophies are embedded in the words."

Tsosie-Paddock received a University of Arizona CUES Fellowship from the Center for University Education Scholarship for her project "Shifting Pedagogies for Learning the Navajo Language: Applying a Mentor-Apprentice Paradigm through Technology." As part of the project, students in her language class study with fluent Navajo speakers as mentors via Zoom, with the goal of increasing students' Navajo language proficiency and cultural knowledge.

"I hope one day all of our Navajo young people are fluent in the language," Tsosie-Paddock said.