Both Beautiful and Brutal: Natalie Diaz and the Mojave Language Recovery Project

May 6th, 2013 | By | Category: Features, Web Exclusive
By Jon Davis

GENERATION TO GENERATION. From left: Candace Montijo, Mojave language learner and librarian at ‘Ava Ich Asiit Tribal Library; Hubert McCord, Mojave teacher and last fluent bird song singer; and Natalie Diaz, director of the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program. Photo by Monique Cover

In July of 2013, Natalie Diaz will be on the campus of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to teach in the Institute’s new Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing. Her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, just out from the highly regarded Copper Canyon Press, is getting lots of attention from reviewers and readers and she recently received a prestigious Lannan Literary Award. Poetry and fiction writing are two of her passions, but she has another one—the language of her people, the ‘Aha Makav—“the people who live beside the river,” also known as the Mojave.

“Mojave people are strong,” Diaz says. “They care for one another. But the community we live in is rough on our people. I see the language as a source of pride and knowledge.” A basketball star in high school, Diaz left Fort Mojave, Arizona to attend Virginia’s Old Dominion University on a basketball scholarship. She was selected as the university’s Female Athlete of the Year after her senior season. She then played professionally in Europe and Asia before returning to Old Dominion to earn her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

“Our values and our identity are fed by our language. We learn how to speak to each other, how to talk about the land and water, how to tease, how to argue, how to mourn, and how to dream, all through the language.”

After graduate school, she returned to the reservation and saw a Mojave language that was slipping away, taking aspects of the culture with it. “I never thought I’d end up back home, especially not after having traveled so far.” For the Mojave, dreams, sumach, are viewed as a powerful source of knowledge. So it makes sense when Diaz, now Director of the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program, says, “I think the events that led me back home began long ago—my elder teacher says I was dreamed to be here, to be learning from him.” Shortly after returning, she received a Master Apprentice Program grant from the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival to learn the Mojave language.


LANGUAGE GUARD. Natalie Diaz talks about land and language issues to an audience in Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Monique Cover

In 2009, she contacted Dr. Teresa McCarty, then co-director of Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education (CIE), to get support for a new language recovery initiative. In February 2010, the CIE sponsored a Mojave Language Summit. “It was attended by a significant number of elders,” McCarty says, “many in frail health, and it is testimony to their dedication and concern for the language that they traveled all the way to ASU.” The summit led to a National Science Foundation grant to support the tribe’s language documentation efforts. “The early days on the job were pretty crazy,” Diaz says. “The toughest part was building a relationship with our elders. They had to be sure they could trust us to keep going and not give up when the work got tough.”

Documenting traditional Mojave bird songs has been one of their most important efforts. It is crucial because only one fluent bird singer remains, 85-year-old Hubert McCord, whom Diaz calls her “teacher and best friend.” Another vital link is 81-year-old Delphina Yrigoyen, one of the last hapuk, a woman who sings along with the main bird singer. Nearly 20 other elders participate in the singing, and a cadre of young men has joined the group. The songs are “fun songs,” Diaz says, “a way to express being Mojave. The first pair of songs that they teach the youth are: ‘Makach Himiim?’ and ‘Saquulaach Imiim.’ The first song asks, ‘Who is crying?’ The second answers, ‘Saquulaa is crying.’ Many of our animals, including birds, were once human. They’re crying for their past lives as humans. If we see one of our learners out in the community, Hubert is known to ask, ‘Makach himiim?’ And they reply, ‘Saquulaach imiim.’ It makes both him and the learner proud.”

The elders won’t be around forever, and this program-in-a-hurry has found a perfect director in the energetic former point guard. “We are doing anything and everything all the time,” Diaz says. “One of our main focuses is our Mojave dictionary, which has morphed into a dictionary/encyclopedia. Our elders have added songs and names and stories to it.” In addition, she’s recording conversations and songs with elders, learning the language herself, and facilitating the elders’ teaching. Twelve core learners have assembled around the elders and have begun teaching in schools and daycare centers. High school students are also learning the language and songs.

Diaz talks about the radical inclusiveness of the program: “Shame was one of the great weapons of the government. We all know the stories of how our elders were beaten if they spoke their language. Our program decided early on never again to make language a source of shame. The door to our class is open to all community members, no matter what their language level. This has led to a rapid growth in learners.” McCarty praises this approach. “The larger message,” she says, “is that such efforts are not about ‘saving’ languages in an abstract sense, but rather about strengthening intergenerational relationships and community building.”

Diaz envisions a time when the Mojave language has equal status with English among the Mojave, when it is used in texts and Facebook posts, when people begin to live by it. In an interview with the literary journal, Barely South Review, Diaz talked about how the Mojave language is evolving: “If we want the language to survive we have to be able to use it everyday, saying what we want to say, so we’ll be creating words now. Sometimes when we do it, our elders look at us like we are nuts, or they’ll say, ‘There’s no word for that,’ and we’ll say, ‘Well we want one, we need one.’”

Mojave language preservation, Diaz believes, is crucial to cultural revitalization. “Basically,” Diaz says, “our values and our identity are fed by our language. We learn how to speak to each other, how to talk about the land and water, how to tease, how to argue, how to mourn, and how to dream, all through the language.”

She calls it “beautiful, brutal work,” and it is not without joys. “The best is when the young men puff up their chests when they learn a new phrase or when an elder praises them. Or when little kids run up to me and tell me their name in Mojave or repeat a short piece of an introduction that we taught them.”

And the learning is full of surprises for someone who loves language as much as Diaz. “Just this morning,” Diaz says, “Hubert and I were driving along and he was explaining to me that the noun that means ‘song’ was also … the plural of ‘singing.’ ‘It’s called a ‘song’ because people sing it, lots of people sing it, not just one.’ And it all made perfect sense. ‘Now turn your music down,’ he told me. ‘It’s just a bunch of hollering anyway.’ It was Nikki Minaj. Hubert was right. As usual.”

Jon Davis is director of the new Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is the author of six collections of poetry, including, most recently, Preliminary Report (Copper Canyon, 2010) and Thelonious Sphere (Q Avenue Press, 2013). He may be best known for playing Osama bin Laden in Sydney Freeland’s short film “Osama Loves Frybread.”

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