Navajo Peacemaking: The Value of Traditional Language in Peacemaking

Produced by the Center for Court Innovation

Gloria Benally, Coordinator of the Navajo Peacemaking Program, discusses the importance of Navajo culture, language, and the fundamental law in peacemaking. Throughout the interview, Gloria transitions between English and Navajo to tell her story. Although a direct translation is not provided in the audio itself, you can find the translation in the podcast transcript.

Media type

Podcast

Transcript

(Background Music Playing)

Precious Benally (PB): (background music fade out) Hi. I’m Precious Benally, Senior Associate with the Center for Court Innovation’s Tribal Justice Exchange and a member of the Navajo Nation. I’m speaking with Gloria Benally, the Program Coordinator for the Navajo Nation Peacemaking Program. During her 13 years with the Program, Gloria has witnessed its many changes, accumulated great stories, and helped expand the practice of peacemaking throughout Indian Country and beyond. The focus of our discussion is on Navajo Fundamental Law, language, and tradition within the Peacemaking Program. Throughout the interview, Gloria transitions between English and Navajo to tell her story, and although a direct translation is not provided in the audio itself, you can find the translation in the transcript below.

PB: To begin, what does Navajo Peacemaking look like today?

Gloria Benally (GB): Peacemaking doesn’t only have to do with the Court anymore. Our main focus is to help the Navajo people not to depend on the Court system and not to depend on the police to always resolve their problems. These are your problems, you should be able to fix it yourself. These children belong to you. These relatives belong to you. You should be able to fix it yourself.

PB: How have you seen Navajo Peacemaking change?

GB: In 2004, the Navajo Nation Council put the fundamental law in Title I. So it went Title I and then the Constitution together. At the time, Chief Justice says to the judges, “Now you guys are all required to use fundamental law, put it in your order.” Since the fundamental law was put in place, there was a need for the judges and the staff attorneys to know fundamental law and also to use it in their court orders.

Navajo translation: They were told to use it to plan even though they feared it and even though they said they did not know it.”

There was a lot of resistance. 10 years later some of the judges are actually using it. Judge Black uses fundamental law. The Supreme Court is using fundamental law all the time.

PB:  Navajo Fundamental Law, Diné bi beehaz'aanii, are all the laws of the Navajo People, which include traditional law, customary law, natural law, and common law. I can imagine that attempting to interweave the fundamental law with federal or state statutes that are not always consistent with Navajo culture has caused some dispute?

GB: I think it was just fear of not knowing. That caused a lot of confrontation about that. And then, the Navajo Nation trying to figure out how they were going to use the fundamental law. What law was supposed to go first? Was it supposed to be the statutes or fundamental law? So the Navajo Nation Council said that, the statue law would come first before fundamental law. 

PB: This meant that when fundamental law was put into title 1, the courts were required to use fundamental law to guide the interpretation of Navajo statutory law and regulations. That’s impressive. What was the peacemaking program’s role in the implementation of Navajo fundamental law?

GB: When they first put fundamental law in place, they gave the Peacemaking Program the responsibility to teach and advise according to the fundamental law. So we were responsible, the peacemaking program is responsible to teach and advise the Navajo Nation Government and the whole agencies and the communities, everybody, about fundamental law. And it’s a really huge responsibility for the Peacemaking Program.

Navajo translation: From the early times, men and women spoke of Navajo lessons –“what is your clan?”-this will be your lessons for you to teach, this will be your law and how you will live. Long ago this is how they taught.  That is no longer around. Who is at home teaching this? With us, how we were brought up as a child –“sit still.” If you are a young girl, “don’t move around” – you are told, “don’t change your body position in various positions”- you are told to sit still. You are told, as female, “don’t lay around when your brothers are in the house or around, don’t lie around in front of your in-laws, when you at your in-laws don’t lie around.” “Walk around when you get up early in the morning.” That was the teachings and it may have sounded as they were mean back then. Now, when you get an in-law they are just lying around and when ladies have a male in-law, they don’t talk with them. Teachings have changed quite a bit that may be the reason for this.

PB: That definitely sounds like a huge responsibility. When teaching and advising the courts about fundamental law, what do you tell the judges?

GB: It really requires a judge to have an open mind. To be able to listen to the people. You can’t always go according to the book. There’s sometimes you have to make a decision according to common sense. Dealing with the Navajo people, that’s what it requires. If you’re going to use fundamental law, it takes an open mind for an individual to use it properly. And the judges that are going to use the fundamental law, they have to be confident about it, they have to understand, and they have to teach about it, and they have to really make the people understand why they’re making these types of decisions.

PB: So, with Diné bi beehaz'aanii being a set of laws that are based on the traditional Navajo way of life, language plays a major part in peacemaking. Are the peacemakers required to know Navajo?

GB: Yes, they have to know Navajo. Because the fundamental law is all Navajo.

Navajo translation: Original Navajo law, fundamental law, the hand of the law, how do we live with it? Teach the Navajo language well to be effective in your teachings. If you don’t know the Navajo language and if you don’t speak the Navajo language then you don’t know.

How important is Navajo language? The Supreme Court came to Peacemaking Program and said ‘what is the law about Navajo language?’ I said, ‘Navajo language is part of life, for every individual, every human being, every Navajo, because that language is not only just a language it’s embedded in a person. To give an example, of a tree stump: your language is what makes you grounded. It keeps you connected to who you are and where you come from and where you’re going. If you don’t understand your language and if you don’t talk your language people can easily persuade you. But, if you’re grounded, nobody can push you around, you stand your ground and you’re not going nowhere. We’re supposed to be teaching our children…

Navajo translationSpeak Navajo. Learn to speak Navajo. Hurry and learn it for it will be good for you. So each day you will pray in Navajo for yourself, so you will be identified by the gods, mother earth will get to know you, heavens will get to know you, winds will know you, the sun will know you. Wherever you are at it will know you if you know your (Navajo) language. That’s how it is and that’s where it lies in the teachings. That’s why.

So important. People are having a difficult time. All the grandparents that I know speak only English, all the grandchildren. Everybody basically speaks only English. And, I don’t know how many people you’ve seen today that completely speak only Navajo.

Navajo translation: none.

PB: That’s true, I personally know only a handful who speak only Navajo.

GB: When I first started working in the Courts in 2002, most of the peacemakers were done in Navajo.

Navajo translation: They just spoke the Navajo language.

But as the generations changed, now I think that most of the peacemaking sessions are done in English. But there’s a lot of traditional teachings that are done in Navajo. And we require the peacemakers to say them in Navajo.

PB: That’s impressive. Although, I too believe that knowing one’s language is important, unfortunately for some, the opportunity to learn was never presented to them. It’s refreshing to hear that the Navajo Peacemaking Program strives to keep the traditions, culture, and language alive in the community. What is one piece of advice you can give to our listeners?

GB: For some reason, it’s so hard for us to practice our own ways of life. What I found is that, if you really want to learn the way of peacemaking, if you really are serious and sincere about it, you have to be willing to sacrifice. And you have to have an open mind and you have to be willing to step into the unknown. And I think that’s what people are so scared of and so afraid of. That’s what’s keeping them away from it. You have to have that open mind, you have to have the heart and the soul to be confident and to allow yourself to be in that process and for you to experience that portion of it, to let it process within you so that you can become that person. That’s the most difficult part of being a peacemaker.

PB: That was beautifully put. Thank you for your very powerful words, Gloria. I feel all the more richer for your valuable insights. Ahéhee' (thank you) for taking the time to speak with me today. To learn more about the Navajo Peacemaking Program, you can visit the Tribal Access to Justice Innovation website at www.tribaljustice.org(background music starts playing) I’m Precious Benally, Senior Associate at the Center for Court Innovation. Thank you for listening.