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Navajo Nation Visit Demonstrates Cultural Resiliency and the Importance of Language

Native American community with Sec. Kathleen Sebelius, Acting Asst. Sec. George Sheldon and ANA Com. Lillian Sparks. Photo by NaNative American leaders and children meet with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, ACF Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon and ANA Commissioner Lillian Sparks. Photo by Navajo Nation Press Office.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit the Navajo Nation.  While this was not my first visit to the largest tribe in Indian Country, both population and land- based, it was certainly memorable as I was accompanying Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon, along with other government officials.

Image of Navajo Nation Seal, which includes mountains, corn, buffalo, cattle and a sun surrounded by tribal art with the words "During this trip our delegation covered a lot of ground, flying into the nearest major airport in New Mexico and then traveling close to 3 hours to Window Rock, Arizona to meet Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Vice- President Rex Lee Jim.  These gentlemen explained to us the significance of their seal, proudly displayed in the President’s office, and the role education and family support has played in their respective lives.   President Shelly escorted us to the Navajo Nation Council Chamber where we observed the legislative branch of the Tribe conduct a committee meeting in the Navajo language.   Witnessing the delegates discuss issues of importance to the Tribe while speaking in Navajo demonstrated the Tribe’s strength and continuous effort to prioritize the transmission of the language, and reinforced the necessity to maintain the use native languages in all of our native communities.

While in Navajo, our delegation also visited the Office of Youth Development/ Boys & Girls Club of Dine Nation, where we toured the facility and sports complex that serves over 7,500 youth in the surrounding communities.   Again, the use of language was prevalent as the youth interacted with each other and the counselors during a game of “hot- potato” and “musical chairs” merged into one activity.  We also had the opportunity to visit the Sawmill Head Start Center where we visited with the parents, grandparents, and teachers and watched the toddlers perform a cultural presentation which also included use of the Navajo language. Navajo Nation Head Start is one of the many tribal Head Start programs that had developed a language and culture based curriculum, Ádééhoniszin Doleeł ("I will know myself") to serve their community.

Lastly, we toured the facility and healing ground of the Tribe’s Regional Behavioral Health Center.  At this site we were invited into the hogan where prayers and songs were offered once again in the Navajo language.   The Tribe’s outpatient facility provides treatment and counseling services for adolescents and adults seeking assistance with substance abuse and behavioral health related needs. This center is serving as demonstration site for integrated co-occurring disorders treatment in Indian Country. The model "Co-Occurring Healing Center" is the first known site to undertake efforts to improve services for individuals with co-occurring disorders by incorporating Western best practices and Indigenous best practices for holistic and culturally responsive integrated healing/ treatment.

During this trip it was evident to any visitor that the Navajo Nation has integrated the use of their traditions and the use of their native language into every aspect of their lives.  Whether it was conducting official business of the Tribes, playing games, providing early childhood instruction, or treating the health and well-being of their citizens, Tribal members collectively made an effort to keep the language spoken from one generation to the next.   Just this week, President Shelly issued a press release recognizing the Navajo Code Talkers, and their contributions to win World War II.  In a state where “English Only” initiatives are often proposed, this vigorous demonstration of native language usage was remarkable and heartening to witness.

Lillian Sparks, a Lakota woman of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes, is the commissioner of the Administration of Native Americans.  Sparks was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the commissioner on March 3, 2010, and was sworn in on March 5, 2010.  She has devoted her career to supporting the educational pursuits of Native American students, protecting the rights of indigenous people, and empowering tribal communities.

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