Laurie Toby Edison

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Native Americans without Stereotypes: A Lesson in Descriptive Navajo

Debbie says:

Although stereotypes of Native Americans are easy to find, mainstream culture does not have a lot of images of everyday Native American people engaged in familiar pursuits. One thing we virtually never see is any connection between Native Americans and technology, which is why I am so pleased by this video, in which daybreakwarrior, a young Navajo man, provides “a lesson in descriptive Navajo” by showing off his iPod:

(If you can’t watch or listen to the video: This video shows a young man describing his iPod in the Navajo language in very significant detail. He covers not only what it is and what it does, but also its size, weight, dimensions, materials, and how the headphone jack and the download port work. The video has both transliteration of the Navajo sounds and translation into English.)

A few specifics to note:

1) He relies on English for only a very few words: “iPod” and “classic,” numbers, and “GB.” The word for “television” appears to be “holo.” In his notes on YouTube, he says: “In regards to concepts of “downloading,” there are no official ways to describe these things in Navajo. People in different areas use different words.”
2) The way he describes the device tells us a lot about Navajo culture–it is very hard to imagine someone of European descent thinking about some of the descriptors he uses (“it has rounded corners”), while still being completely informative and intelligible to a non-Navajo speaker.
3) His clothing and surroundings also silently combat stereotypes of Native Americans.

I find that I enjoyed this video even more the second and third times. It makes me wish I spoke Navajo, or at least that I had better access to descriptive concepts of that depth and range.

(I found this at Sociological Images, in a longer post by Adrienne Keene about stereotyping Native Americans and technological concepts, which is also well worth reading.)

4 Responses to “Native Americans without Stereotypes: A Lesson in Descriptive Navajo”

  1. Lizzie Says:

    We heard a very interesting spot on NPR a few years ago, an interview with a Navajo man who was going to be doing simultaneous translation of the Superbowl game later that day. If memory serves, he said he’d be using Navajo terms for actions likes “moves forward in the air” for football terms like “forward pass”, and wouldn’t need to use many English terms. I should look for this on the NPR site.

    I’ve heard Navajo on the radio during cross country trips.

  2. betsyl Says:

    that’s actually written navajo, not transliteration. and may i just say that navajo in my opinion is a language that is a hard fit on the latin alphabet, even with that many amazing diacritics.

    http://homepage.mac.com/thgewecke/navlit.html has more information on written navajo, and why it was slow to catch on, and how at least the person who wrote that webpage.

    (i am just sitting here being amazed at how fabulous the language is. voiceless continuants! tones! animacy distinctions! whoa.)

  3. Debbie Says:

    Oooh, I had no idea there was written Navajo in the Arabic alphabet. Thanks for enlightening me.

    You clearly know a lot more than I do. I’m just nontechnically fascinated.

  4. Ilana Says:

    Re Lizzie’s comments – that is what I find so fascinating about the Navajo code talkers of WWII. They found ways to describe modern military concepts (bombs, aircraft carriers, etc) in the Navajo language.

    What I find most interesting (and wonderful), I am sad to say, is that a young man speaks Navajo. Many tribal languages are dying out.

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