I’ve been closely following Chris Deschene’s bid for president of the Navajo Nation. Deschene was set to face former Navajo leader Joe Shirley in the general election, but several defeated primary candidates protested his inability to speak fluent Navajo. Navajo tribal law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in both Navajo and English, and although Deschene claimed in candidate paperwork that he was fluent, he now admits that his facility with Navajo is not flawless.
Deschene was then disqualified from the race after refusing to take a Navajo language proficiency test. He appealed to the Navajo Supreme Court, but his case was dismissed on a technicality. This week the Navajo council will consider removing the language requirement for presidential candidates, so he still has a shot to stay on the ballot. Deschene’s troubles have highlighted a growing divide within the Navajo nation: Many younger tribal members do not feel the language requirement is in the best interest of the nation, but most elders feel it is critical to the nation’s cultural survival. The tension is made all the more compelling because the Navajo nation and its language played a critical role in WW II with its celebrated codetalkers.
Professor Manley Begay Jr. at Northern Arizona University, a member of the Navajo Nation, believes a Navajo president must be able to speak the language because he or she must be able to communicate with older tribal members—some of whom only speak Navajo. But there’s another reason why retaining a culture’s language is so important: We learn important information about the past through clues that native language provides.
For example, Robert Rogers’ Raid on the St. Francis Catholic mission (called Odanak in Abenaki)—home to hundreds of Abenaki Indians during the French and Indian Wars—demonstrates how important details are forgotten when historians and ethnographers ignore oral tradition and the nuance of language. Rogers’ own version of the October 4, 1759 attack on the village claims that he and his “Rangers”, aided by a group of Stockbridge Indians, raided a war-mongering group of Abenaki and killed hundreds of warriors. Later portrayed in the Spencer Tracy film “Northwest Passage”—based on the novel by Kenneth Roberts—that account stands in stark contrast to Abenaki oral traditions about that traumatic attack.
In his seminal work, “Oral Tradition as Complement”, the late anthropologist Gordon M. Day set out to resolve several key aspects of Robert Rogers’ personal accounts of the raid that did not match French documents. For instance, Rogers insisted hundreds of Abenaki were killed; French internal documents consistently recorded 30 dead (20 of whom were women and children).
Did Rogers’ exaggerate to please his superior, British commander Lord Jeffery Amherst? Or might there be another reason why his account differed so greatly from French eyewitnesses?
Day consulted several Abenaki oral traditions to tease out important details on the raid. One came from the elderly Elvine Obomsawin, who heard it as a little girl from her Aunt Mali Msadoques, who in turn had heard it from her grandmother who was a little girl in the village at the time of Rogers’ Raid. The oral tradition tells of a teenaged girl who leaves an autumn harvest dance at the gathering hall to get some fresh air. While outside, she’s approached by a stranger—an Indian but not an Abenaki—who warns her that enemies surround the village and will soon attack. The girl alerts the others, and most hide in a nearby ravine, thus saving a large number from certain death.
Day corroborated the Obomsawin oral tradition by consulting another obtained from an elderly man named Theophile Panadis. Panadis heard it from his grandmother Sophie Morice, who in turn had heard it from villagers who were alive at the time of the raid. Not only does Panadis’ oral tradition confirm that there had been a warning delivered to the residents at Odanak, but it also provides tantalizing clues as to the identity of the warner. On the surface, it makes no sense that a Stockbridge Indian would betray Rogers and warn the Abenakis. As Day explains, “The Stockbridges had suffered at the hands of the French and were fierce partisans of the English throughout the war.”
But if one considers the exact words uttered by the warner—as passed-on through generations of Odanak Abenakis—it is clear that he was not Stockbridge; his language was close enough to Abenaki to be intelligible. Day translates for us: “My friends, I am telling you.” ndapsizak, kedodermokawleba (Abenaki: nidobak, kedodokawleba.) “I would warn you.” kwawimleba (Abenaki: kwawimkawleba) “They are going to exterminate you.” kedatsowi wakwatahogaba (Same in Abenaki.)
Both Day and University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Marge Bruchac conclude that the Indian who gave the warning to people of Odanak was Samadagwis, the supposedly Stockbridge scout who was the only member of Rogers’ party to be killed during the raid. Samadagwis was mostly likely a Schaghticoke—and not a Stockbridge—due to his language and the fact that he requested baptism before he died from his wounds. He was clearly not among the Stockbridges who were long-time followers of Puritan John Edwards.
I have re-read Day’s work dozens of times, and every time it gives me goose bumps. By honoring the power of oral traditions and attending to the specificity of language, he enables us to reach across time and hear accounts that solve longstanding historical mysteries.
It is up to the voting members of the Navajo nation to decide if their president must be fluent in Navajo. But whatever the outcome of this race, it is critical that greater efforts be made within the nation to preserve their language. We all lose some of the vital complexity of history when language is lost.