Words Upon a Desert Wind
Traveling to ancient places in the Navajo Nation as part of Washington College’s Southwest Seminar, Rachel Brown ’16 is studying how losing and reclaiming a language influences a culture and its people.
Although she is a serious student of languages, Rachel Brown ’16 understands that there are moments when words aren’t necessary to convey a culture’s soul and spirit. Such was a moment this summer, she says, when a Navajo Nation archaeologist took students from Washington College’s Southwest Seminar on a backcountry trek. As they walked through a small canyon alongside copper-colored cliff walls etched with complex petroglyphs, Will Tsosie told students the stories related to the ancient drawings, and sang blessings and songs in his native language.
“Even though I couldn’t understand it, I could hear the patterns, just amazing,” says Brown. “At one point I looked around and you couldn’t see another living soul except for the people you were with. And, I might have expected it to be scary, but it wasn’t. I don’t have a word for it. Intense. Beautiful. The sky was huge, and you could see all of the colors of the rock going back however many millions of years. Just hearing those stories, you could easily see The People walking down the wash.”
Tsosie is a former student (at Fort Lewis College in Colorado) of Aaron Lampman, chair of Washington College’s Anthropology Department and the co-creator of the Southwest Seminar. This summer, Lampman and Julie Markin, assistant professor of anthropology, took 11 students on a 14-day journey that included visits to Durango, Santa Fe, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon and Havasupi Falls, the Navajo Nation, and rafting on the San Juan River.
Brown, who is a double major in anthropology and Spanish, with a concentration in Latin American Studies and a minor in creative writing, had never been to the desert Southwest before. But at Lampman’s and Markin’s urging, she saw an opportunity to explore her interests in language, poetry, and anthropology using the seminar as doorway for each.
To fund the trip and the two-part independent project she’s researching and writing based upon it, Brown applied for and received three grants. A member of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, she earned a Cater Society grant of $3,500. She also won the Gerda Blumenthal Phi Beta Kappa Award of $1,200, as well as the Friends of the Miller Library Research Fellowship of $1,000.
“In this period of rapid globalization the threat of language extinction is very real for 90 percent of the world’s 6,000 languages,” says Lampman. “Rachel is attempting to examine strategies of resistance against this threat, and how some Navajo authors maintain and celebrate the Navajo cultural worldview through linguistic and narrative strategies. Her dedication to the project has been outstanding, and the clarity and importance of her research has led to support from three different granting institutions on campus.”
The first part of Brown’s project focuses on how the Navajo language is learned and used by the people who are trying to keep it alive. During her trip, Brown interviewed Navajos about when and where they encountered their native tongue, if at all.
“I’m interested in how it is used and how it is representative of Navajo cultural expression in general, how their language relates to their culture,” Brown says. Navajo is not generally taught in schools, nor is it part of the daily media the way English is. “Most of the people I talked to had learned it from their grandparents. So they had Navajo when they were younger, but they didn’t learn to write it, and they lost it very quickly” once they weren’t around their grandparents anymore.
The second part of the project is based on the poetry of the Navajo Nation’s first poet laureate, Luci Tapahonso. Although Brown wasn’t able to meet with Tapahonso, the Miller Library has a cache of recordings of Tapahonso reading her poetry. “That’s a gold mine, and I’m so excited we have it,” Brown says.
The academic circle around Tapahonso, Brown says, “is interested in using poetry as another facet of cultural regeneration, and the way language intersects with that is that some of them write in Navajo exclusively, some write in Navajo first and then translate into English, some of them do code-switching where they have a few Navajo words here and there in the poem. It’s another way to express and reclaim their culture through language.”
Neither aspects of this project are directly related to her Spanish major, Brown says, but the whole experience has been useful on many levels—not the least in learning how to write three successful grant proposals.
“I have done research projects in high school and college, but they’ve always been given to me. I’ve never done an independent project on this scale before.” And, just to be immersed in the place itself was invaluable, she says.
“Even though we’d had the classes and done the readings, the whole purpose of the seminar was to learn everything while in that place, so you would actually get it in the context and perspective you would totally miss in a textbook. We were steeped in it every day. It was amazing.”
Brown, who is also a student associate at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, has spent the rest of her summer working on StoryQuest, the center’s oral history project focusing this year on World War II veterans. She’s looking forward to spending her fall semester studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador.