BYU professor teaches Navajo family values through her language classes

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Rena Dunn teaches BYU’s only Navajo language classes. “People that have studied Navajo say that it’s one of the few complete languages,” she said. (BYU Photo)

BYU Navajo teacher Rena Dunn and junior Naabaahii Tsosie aren’t related by blood, but they introduce themselves as siblings.

“There’s no such thing as cousins (in the Navajo language),” Dunn said. “You’re either brothers or sisters.”

It’s just one example of how important families and relationships are to the Navajo people. Dunn said because both of her and Tsosie’s fathers are members of the same clan, their fathers are brothers, and she and Tsosie are sister and brother.

“I want them to know that learning the language involves the culture,” Dunn said. Through her Navajo classes, she spreads awareness of the Navajo nation’s deeply-held family values.

Dunn grew up in the Gap area in Arizona. She said she spoke mostly Navajo at home and learned English in the boarding school she attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. Her mother worked hard as a rancher, taking care of cattle and horses to support Dunn and her family, with the help of other family members.

Dunn said her mother sent her off with advice when she decided to move to California for high school as part of the Church’s Placement Program. She described the Placement Program as an opportunity for Native American youth to live with a foster family and grow stronger in the Church, experience dominant society’s ideals and better their chances of receiving a good education.

“Take what is best of the dominant society’s ideals and way of life,” Dunn remembers her mother saying. “You don’t have to choose the things that are not good. Choose the things that are good.”

The values Dunn said she chose were education, developing faith and testimony, and family. “Family values were very close with both my foster family and my Navajo family.”

Tsosie said he learned that family is a very important thing to Navajos through learning a bit of their language. He shared as an example the fact that the words for “maternal grandfather” and “paternal grandfather” are very different. Each family member has their own title and role.

Dunn teaches a lesson to her Navajo language class. She said she appreciates the chance to teach because it brought her back to her reading and writing Navajo. (Rena Dunn)

There are a lot of Navajo stories that teach how families are important and how they should work together, Dunn said. The wise men and medicine men talk about being kind to one’s family, she said, adding that family includes extended family.

“My great-grandfather’s eight children and their families are all considered to be a part of our family,” Dunn said. They have been holding family reunions for the past 40 years.

She said she is grateful for the opportunity to teach her native language to students at BYU. “It was really good because it has brought me back to writing and reading Navajo, and also expanding my knowledge of a lot of the traditional stories and teachings that went on in Navajo culture, and why they played games,” she said. “They played a lot of games to bring family togetherness.”

Tsosie said he hopes he can use what he learns in Dunn’s class to speak to his great-grandmother, who does not speak much English. He has also been reconnecting with his culture by doing tribal dances with Living Legends.

Chase Barfuss, a senior from South Jordan studying social sciences, said he took Dunn’s class because he served his mission on a Navajo reservation. He really enjoyed their family-oriented culture.

“It’s really fascinating to see how the language and the culture interact with each other,” he said. “It really helps to just appreciate how amazing they are, and the cultures we have all around us that we sometimes fail to recognize.”

Dunn said her grandchildren are learning about their culture now, and her granddaughter wants to learn the Ojibewea tribe jingle dance and the hoop dance. Maybe her brother Tsosie, she suggested, could be the teacher.

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