Jon Austria/ The Daily-Times
FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) – “Ya’at eeh,” George Werito says, greeting thousands of radio listeners across the Navajo reservation in their native language, Diné.
He has callers on the line, waiting. People want to tell him about road conditions, chapter meetings and church functions.
If you tell him your bit of news, he will report it, but in a fun way. He throws in trivia, games and that sort of thing.
Werito, a radio personality at KNDN-AM radio in Farmington, is considered the Jay Leno of the Navajo Nation, according to some of his listeners.
The news is hardly anything that Leno himself would share: lost turtles, funeral announcements and pow-wow updates. However, when Werito speaks, his audience listens.
And the Navajo language needs the people’s attention more than ever, according to those trying to preserve it.
About half of the Navajo reservation’s population speaks Diné, but the language is changing with its people.
In some ways, the changes are good – a broadening vocabulary, for instance. In other ways – fewer people are learning the vocabulary – the changes are bad.
KNDN radio, one of three Navajo language radio stations in the Southwest, serves listeners spread across the Navajo reservation, which sprawls across three states: New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
The listeners are young and old, though the latter makes up a majority of the audience, Werito says. KNDN has about 100,000 listeners each week. The listeners, for the most part, are among the more than 330,000 Navajos who live in and around the Navajo Nation.
Since KNDN became a full-time Navajo language station in 1978, fans have tuned in, some without a break, to hear the news of the reservation.
“They don’t wait,” Werito said, noting that he goes on air at 6 a.m. daily and immediately is flooded with calls.
“A lot of our people listen. It’s where they get their news,” he says.
He announces coal allotments, hay and corn distributions, ceremonial events, school-board meetings and items lost and found.
While other media report on Navajo news, it is often in English, which some elders still do not speak, and it appeals to a different audience. No Navajo-language television shows exist, nor newspapers, though some do use the language fleetingly in their coverage.
KNDN also has small luxuries that most English-speaking media do not have.
The station, for example, has a separate room where it allows people to come in as guests and make death and funeral announcements over the radio so the radio hosts do not have to participate. If the hosts did participate, they later would have to go through special ceremonies since death is such a taboo topic.
“The station’s always included things that are unusual,” said Kerwin Gober, who manages KNDN and two other area radio stations.
To some, the discussions on KNDN’s airwaves may seem trivial, or like clips from town-hall meetings.
One time, a lady called in to complain about her neighbor’s cow. The cow supposedly was running loose and, to her annoyance, kept turning on her water.
“How does a cow turn on the water?” Werito chuckled remembering the caller as Gober told the story.
Other stories have more gravity, such as the one about the man who was admitted to the hospital without any indication of his identity, except for an eagle tattoo on his shoulder.
The hospital called the radio station, asking if the station would notify its audience of the patient and his tattoo in hopes of perhaps finding his family. The very same day, the family called in and was connected with the patient.
“We’re probably the only form of communication some of them have,” Werito said.
Granted, most Navajo have better access to various forms of communication than they used to. Cellphones, computers, and other technologies are more available with the slow build-up of infrastructure on the reservation.
But even if the information they get from other media is about the Navajo people, it still is not in the people’s native language. And it is easily disregarded.
Betsy Cook recalls only 20 years ago, when she taught at a community school in Rock Point, Ariz., that the majority of her students fluently spoke and practiced Diné at home.
Rock Point, a tiny community on the reservation, is not the same today. Neither are the schools.
While the schools still are teaching the native language, they are teaching students who never before learned it. Only a few decades ago, the lessons were only a repeat of what they already learned from their parents and grandparents.
“The loss in just 25 years has just been horrendous,” said Cook, who now is on the board of the Navajo Language Renaissance, a nonprofit group working to preserve and promote Diné.
Cook was just one of a handful of people who in 2004 kick-started the effort to make a Navajo edition of Rosetta Stone, a language learning computer program.
The program was released in 2010, though the group does not want to stop there because it only provides two beginning levels. Although not easy, they are not enough for those who have a head start and want to learn more.
“It’s a very descriptive language,” Cook said, noting that the pictures were vital for the program because there are multiple ways to say one word. A word can change its meaning depending on how it’s used in a sentence.
“You can’t just say it,”’ Cook said, noting that the language is tonal. “There’re 16 different words for it.”’
To explain the tones, the relationships, and the uses of words in just a two-level program does not suffice, Cook said.
The group is ready for levels three, four, and five, especially since many schools are turning to the Rosetta Stone program to help students better learn the language.
The majority of the students interested in Navajo, unsurprisingly, are Navajo, both young and old.
“I grew up with it, but I didn’t study it,” said Elton Begay, 35, who is taking a beginner’s Navajo language course at San Juan College in Farmington, the reservation’s largest border town.
Though not on the reservation, Farmington has the highest number of Navajo speakers in the country, with about 16.5 percent speaking it, according to the American Community Survey of 2007.
About 12 percent of Gallup’s population speaks Diné, 10.3 percent of Flagstaff’s and 5.4 percent of Albuquerque’s, the survey said.
“I didn’t feel like getting made fun of by my grandma anymore,” Begay said. “My grandma laughs at me.”
Begay sees an opportunity to return to his roots.
Speaking Diné could also give Begay a leg up when applying for jobs, he said, especially since fewer and fewer people can speak it.
Others simply want to take it because they never formally learned the language, which often means they cannot read or write it.
The language originally was not a written one, though American militants and missionaries began to write it down in the late 1700s.
“I’m very fluent in it,” said Alethea Denet, 41, who is in the same class as Begay. “I thought (learning to read and write) was going to be easy, but it isn’t. And this is just the beginning.”
The older students have a harder time, according to Lorraine Begay Manavi, San Juan College Assistant Professor in Navajo language. She teaches a lot of students who did not see the worth of learning the language in their younger years, she said, and find its value later.
“Most of them, they go out, travel, and people ask them where they are from. People say to them, Say something to me in Navajo,”’ Manavi said.
Even if students do learn it, they must use it to retain it, she said.
“It’s just like feeding an animal. If you don’t feed it, if you don’t take care of it, it will run away and die,” she said.
While the future of the Diné language is hardly clear, it is arguably a survivor among the nation’s American Indian languages.
In Diné, you can talk about sports, politics, technology a whole plethora of topics that other endangered languages would struggle to express.
As has been done in the past with Diné, such as the invention of words by the Code Talkers during World War II, many of the words come from descriptions, Cook and Manavi said.
The Code Talkers, a group of Navajo embedded with the U.S. military, used their language to create a code that Japanese adversaries could not decipher.
Much of the code involved simply piecing together existing words in Diné and making new ones that made sense during wartime.
One such word was “chidi naa na’i bee’ eldoo, htsoh bilkaa dah naazhiligii,” according to Rosetta Stone content editor Danny Hieber. The word translates to “car that one sits up on that crawls around with a thing on it that makes big explosions.” In English – an army tank.
The same kind of construction is applied today.
Cellphone, for example, has a few interpretations. Some interpret it as “the thing you hold up to your ear, others, “the thing you run around and around with,” and others, “the thing you run up to the top of the hill with,” referring to the all-too-common bad reception on the reservation.
“It depends on what the object is, and what its function is,” Manavi said. A computer is known as “metal that thinks,” or “box that remembers.”
At times, English is necessary, usually when it’s a very specific topic – such as medicine. Often, in such cases, the words are too complicated to make it worth finding a new word.
Other times, English isn’t necessary, but, for whatever reason, it’s easier.
“Our language is very important,” Werito said. “We should keep it going.”
Saying it, though, is easier than doing it. With more and more youth slipping away from fluency, it likely will be a harder and harder language to maintain.
“My grandchildren, I’m sorry to say, I talk to them in English,” said Werito, so known for his Diné voice. “The way I see it, it starts at home.”