Validating Oral History and The Unwritten Language of Native Americans.
As the “newly reborn” Nation was embarked on by new comers from the times of European conquest, the lives and ways of the Native people in North America were taken on a whirlwind of storming, forming, and norming with no prevail to see the end of this change. The arrival of Columbus in 1492 curtailed the next 524 years, as times of change and many of their unwritten history. The stories we read in school textbooks and literature shows us the fluffed and softened history such as with the peaceful gathering of Native Americans and the Pilgrims for a feast during the Harvest Season Today we call this Thanks Giving.
The Navajo people call themselves Diné. Being Native American I grew up with my first language as Navajo (Diné) language and matured with education and am now able to question, who tells our history, who tells the American history, and who gives our cultural interpretation? In formulating an interpretive program, we often question the sources of our information. In grade school, I was learning about Native American History through white educators. In my High School and College years, I was getting the stories through my thirst for stories from Elders in the community and other tribal groups. I heard of the horrific first account stories carried down by those who suffered and survived the 1864-1868, Long Walk of the Navajo (Diné). Stories have a way of getting filtered down or changed with the person telling the story such as mentioned by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story.
I have realized in reading up on the local and Navajo (Diné) history we have a few places that the validity of the oral story is changed through translation.
- Translations loosing context…
- The translator, not well versed in the English vocabulary
- The Translator, not well versed in the Navajo Language.
- The experience of the person making the translation of the language.
I have come across words translated into the English words from Navajo (Diné), which
have lost meaning and therefore have been misrepresented. When the Native tongue is used to express or give information, the information creates thought, and very descriptive ideas connected to the senses of your human body. When jokes are told in the Diné language and translated to English, most times we find that it comes out very bland and losing its context.
Documentations of literature that I see written about the local Native people, seems that there were many cases of very loose translations. The person doing the translation did not have a large English vocabulary to choose the right fitted words to express the meaning of the words. The loose translations are hard to change through time, since it is many of these loose translations that are now written in literature, research, or documentations.
The translator for oral history should also be well versed in the Diné Language, so the exact details created with the story can be captured. We find that the Diné language is very complicated with the intertwining of the time of the events, the surroundings, and also the maturity of the person’s Diné language.
Most translators who have worked with the Diné people have found that there are differences in the dialect as you move about the Diné lands. For this reason the experience of how the language is spoken is very important. A Diné person coming from the far north will communicate quite differently as one from the south. If someone is patient and has the time to work for months and years with the Diné speaking people in their homes and in their lives, A very articulate and precise translation with strong valid information is read in an Autobiography of Wolf Killer, by Louisa Wetherill.
If you were to look in our park library and pick out any 3 random books as I did, you will find that they were all produced and published in the 1960’s or 1970’s. During this erra, it would be common to find an anthropologist living with local Navajo (Diné) Family to do what was needed to write research document or to complete their dissertation for the completion of their education program. I go back to my research professor who challenged me with phrases such as “Just because it is written, it is not true”, I needed to see beyond the pretense of the literature available to me.
Looking beyond the information means to validate the information from knowledge of how the translations were done, the knowledge of who is doing the translation, and also the work and time put into the translations of the oral history from an Diné speaking elder.