There are about 175,000 speakers of the Navajo language Díne Bizaad. While English is the language that all Navajo speak, they also keep alive their own language, culture and customs so that future generations will be aware of their heritage. For Americans who grew up on old TV westerns, they may have heard the language without realizing it. As most westerns were centered on the southwestern United States, the most depicted tribes in these westerns were Apache or Navajo. The Navajo greetings Yah’eh-teh’, meaning “how do you do?”, and Ah-hah-lah’nih, which is an affectionate greeting, were often used.
Probably the most famous use of the Navajo language outside of the Navajo Nation was during World War II. 420 young Navajo men were recruited and became Marines codetalkers during the war in the Pacific. They were picked because they spoke both English and their native language fluently, so they could receive orders and relay them to other codetalkers to give to their superiors. The Navajo language had not been studied by the enemy, so orders could be issued without fear of interception.
There are many sayings or words of wisdom that have been handed down by Navajo elders through the generations. Many of them are words of advice, much as most proverbs are, to the next generations. Most of the proverbs deal with humanity’s relationship to the land or animals. As the Navajo are a tribe that is centered on their family, some of the proverbs are about family as well. Here are some of the more famous quotes that have survived throughout the centuries from the Navajo Tribe.
“I have been to the end of the earth,
I have been to the end of the waters,
I have been to the end of the sky,
I have been to the end of the mountains,
I have found none that are not my friends.”
This proverb is about man’s relationship to nature and the lands he travels.
Hard work is very much a part of Navajo culture and their ancestral lands are not on the most hospitable portion of Earth. As a tribe that raised crops, it took a lot of work to get their crops to grow in the dry, arid desert lands in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. This proverb reflects the need for hard work rather than prayer.
“A rocky vineyard does not need a prayer, but a pick axe.”
In a roundabout way, this next saying is also about hard work or the lack of one’s ambition for hard work. It can be frustrating to try to give someone advice who doesn’t want it or to try to drag them to work when they don’t wish to be there. This saying is reflective of those problems.
“You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”
In general, the Navajo were a peaceful people who usually only fought to defend their lands, their livestock or their people. They guard their thoughts and speech carefully so as not to wish ill on others or at least that is the ideal. This proverb advices people to control their thoughts, especially unkind ones, otherwise they may become victimized by their own thoughts or words.
“Thoughts are like arrows: once released, they strike their mark. Guard them well or one day you may be your own victim.”
Like most Native American tribes, the Navajo tribe has great respect for their elders and treat them as such. Their elderly are taken care of by their adult children and, in most cases, they live with them or nearby them. Even Navajo astronomy reflects the idea that will age comes wisdom in the constellation Áltse Etsoh.
This constellation translates to English as “The First Great One” and depicts a man with a cane in his hand who represents the elders. This figure represents the ideal that “with old age comes happiness or contentment” because it is with age that people have gained wisdom and respect. The pearls of wisdom shared in the proverbs reflect the wisdom that the elders of the Navajo Nation have passed down to their people through the generations.
The Navajo people have great respect for their elders and for the family as a whole. They are family oriented and take care to teach their children by passing down stories they learned from their parents who were taught by their parents and so on. These stories allows them to pass on information about their culture, but also the wisdom of the elders about how to treat the land, how to treat others and to appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. Many of these concepts are reflected in their proverbs, which also reflect the Navajo sense of ethics regarding hard work, as well as taking care of the Earth and family.