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Preserve the Navajo language

In May, my husband and I attended a high school graduation in Many Farms, Arizona. Unlike most other graduation services across the country, the primary language used throughout this service was Navajo — the language of the people whose children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews were graduating. We were there to celebrate the achievements of a young woman I have been mentoring through a program called Futures for Children.

In a recent article in The Sun, "A dying tongue hangs heavy in Navajo Nation,"(Nov. 2), John M. Glionna describes how the Navajo Nation's requirement that their president be fluent in Navajo, while being upheld in a tribal court ruling, is now being questioned as many of their young people are not learning the language.

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The fact remains, however, that for many of those living in the Navajo Nation, English is still a second language. The parents of the girl whose graduation brought us to Many Farms still easily revert to speaking in Navajo. While riding with them over the mesa where their livestock are kept, the words and the songs heard on the radio station were in Navajo. When I asked them to translate one of the songs, I learned it was a love song.

Why should we Americans, most of whom will never set foot on tribal land, be concerned about keeping the Navajo language alive? One of the reasons has to do with our own history and with a birthday gift my mother wrote in my baby book for my first birthday. It read simply, "victory over Japan." Many Americans would not make the connection between that gift and the impact the Navajo language had on it. My father was stationed in France where his Army unit was waiting to know if they would be deployed to fight the Japanese. When Emperor Hirohito surrendered, I turned one year old. His surrender meant my dad and other dads, grandpas, uncles, cousins, brothers, aunts and sisters could return home to America.

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How did the use of the Navajo "tongue" influence this event? Navajo men had been inducted into the armed forces specifically so their language skills could be used as a code the Japanese could not break. A movie was made several years ago depicting the role these "codetalkers" played in our successful routing of the Japanese war efforts.

While English may be overtaking Navajo as the language of the young people, Navajo is still a vibrant, primary language for their elders. Its role in preserving our country should not be forgotten.

Sandra Kelman, Pikesville

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