Preserving the Wisdom: The Navajo Oral History Project

Feb 6th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Tom Grier

Peter MacDonald discusses his training as a Navajo code talker. Photo by Tom Grier

Students learn and retain skills better if they couple classroom lectures with active learning, working on real projects with meaningful outcomes. This served as the guiding philosophy of the Navajo Oral History Project, a documentary journalism collaboration between Diné College (DC) in the Navajo Nation and Winona State University (WSU) in Minnesota. Since its inception, more than 80 students from the two institutions have collaborated in small teams to create 23 documentary films focused on the life stories of Navajo elders.

While many Native communities have designed oral history projects to record and preserve culture and traditions, the Navajo Nation did not have an organized oral history effort. Dr. Miranda Haskie, a sociology professor at DC, and I sought to remedy that by developing a project that would preserve the rich and deep Navajo culture while also enhancing student journalism skills.


Wilson Aronilth Jr., a professor of Diné Studies at Diné College, explains the Navajo creation story. Photo by Kim Streblow

Before we could proceed with the project, we had to meet several protocols. Haskie and I applied for approval from a variety of entities: a Class C Permit for ethnographic research from the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department; institutional review board certification from both DC and WSU; resolutions of support from the Navajo Nation Museum, Navajo Nation Library, and several Navajo community chapter government offices; and finally, certification from the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board.

Upon meeting these protocols and receiving approval, we sought input from Navajo leaders to help us devise a list of elders to interview. Haskie and I hoped to ensure that participants reflected the diversity within the Navajo Nation. Each year, we made an effort to include at least one Navajo code talker, to help ensure that the stories of these American heroes were recorded and saved for all time. In addition, the project aimed to include elders with a long relationship to Diné College, to record the history of the people who helped found and sustain America’s first tribal college.


Nita Nez, a traditional Navajo weaver, reflects on her craft. Photo by Whitney Harlos

Besides serving as an effort to preserve knowledge, the Navajo Oral History Project also put students front and center. They researched, photographed, and recorded the elders, working closely with them throughout the interview process. WSU students were often mass communication majors who had taken courses in journalism and photojournalism. They brought technical knowledge of recording equipment and methods to the project, along with their ability to write and edit feature articles. DC students, alternatively, had firsthand knowledge of Navajo culture and ensured accurate and respectful transcription and editing. Diné students were also crucial in gaining the trust of the elders—sometimes achieved by offering a day of labor to help build relationships. The labor took a variety of forms, covering everything from clearing and cutting trees to repairing hogans and building sidewalks.


Ruth Roessel, founding matriarch of Diné College. Photo by Peter Swanson

Groups interviewed each elder two or three times in a variety of settings. They also conducted secondary interviews with people close to the featured elder. The students transcribed the interviews and then organized, edited, and produced their documentaries. The finished projects were professionally duplicated into DVD sets that were given to the interviewees and archived at the Navajo Nation Museum and Library, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the DC and WSU libraries. Each autumn, the students hosted a reception at DC to premiere the documentary films. Most of the featured elders attended the event and commented on the project. It was a moving experience to witness the elders viewing the documentaries about their lives for the first time.

The Navajo Oral History Project was originally designed as part of a five-year collaboration agreement between DC and WSU. Now that this term has expired, Haskie and I are looking forward to renewing the agreement so that student learning opportunities can continue and more of these important historical documents can be created and preserved.


Keith Little, Navajo code talker, talks about World War II. Photo by Tom Grier

Tom Grier, Ph.D., is Professor of Mass Communication at Winona State University.

APPENDIX: Navajo Oral History Project Participants

Below is a list of all elders who participated in the Navajo Oral History Project. Each documentary can be accessed via YouTube.

2009: Dr. Beulah Allen from Wheatfields, Arizona, the first female Navajo medical doctor and founder of the Navajo Emergency Medical Service; Dr. Wilson Aronilth Jr., from Blackrock, Arizona, an author and professor of Diné Education at Diné College; Ruth Roessel from Round Rock, Arizona, a Navajo educator, author, and founder of the Rough Rock Demonstration School; Samuel Tso from Lukachukai, Arizona, a World War II Navajo code talker; and Harry Walters from Cove, Arizona, an educator, artist, and former director of the Ned Hatathli Museum at Diné College.

2010: Andrew Brady from Shiprock, New Mexico, an Air Force veteran, retired coal miner, and sheep farmer; John Kinsel from Lukachukai, Arizona, a World War II Navajo code talker; Lettie Nave from Tsaile, Arizona, an educator and community leader; and Marjorie “Grandma” Thomas from Chinle, Arizona, an educator who started an annual walk to raise funds for a Navajo youth center.

2011: Mitzie Begay from Fort Defiance, Arizona, a Navajo cultural liaison at Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance; Jack Jackson Sr. of Navajo, New Mexico, a former Arizona State Senator and retired educator in the Diné Policy Institute at Diné College; Keith Little from Crystal, New Mexico, a Navajo code talker during World War II and president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association; and Harold Morgan of Sawmill, Arizona, legislative assistant to the Navajo Tribal Council for more than 30 years.

2012: Kee Etsicitty from Chichiltah, New Mexico, a Navajo code talker during World War II; Samuel Tom Holiday from Kayenta, Arizona, a Navajo code talker during World War II; Chester Nez from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers; Agatha Spencer from Chinle, Arizona, an academic advisor since the founding of Diné College; and Joe Vandever from Haystack, New Mexico, a Navajo code talker during World War II.

2013: Jake Livingston from Sanders, Arizona, a Navajo-Zuni silversmith; Peter MacDonald from Tuba City, Arizona, former Navajo Tribal Chairman and a Navajo code talker during World War II; Nita Nez from Rock Point, Arizona, a traditional Navajo rug weaver; Della Toadlena from Chinle, Arizona, a retired Diné College English professor; and Baje Whitethorne Sr. from Flagstaff, Arizona, a Navajo painter, sculptor, and author.

RUTH ROESSEL: Educator, author, founder of Rough Rock Demonstration School, and founding matriarch of Navajo Community College.

PETER MacDONALD: Former president of the Navajo Nation, a founder of the Council on Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), and World War II code talker.

NITA NEZ: Traditional Navajo rug weaver.

HARRY WALTERS: Educator, artist, and former director of the Ned Hatathli Museum at Diné College.

KEITH LITTLE: World War II Navajo code talker.

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