Saying Hello in Navajo with NEH Chair Shelly C. LoweHistorians in the News
tags: National Endowment for the Humanities, Native American history, Navajo
HUMANITIES: You grew up in Ganado, Arizona, in the heart of Navajo Nation. What was your childhood like, and how was it different from, say, other versions of the American childhood?
LOWE: I grew up in a very close-knit community. Both sides of my family were very involved in the school community, but also the church community, the Presbyterian Church. Every week I got to see relatives from both sides of my family.
It was rural. When I was small, we lived on a dirt road that you couldn’t drive on when it rained or when we had a really wet snow storm. We used to have to park down on the side of the highway to avoid getting our car stuck in the mud. Then you’d have to walk all the way up to the house.
In college, I was talking with a student from Phoenix who asked me, How big is your backyard? I didn’t realize that the size of your yard was a status thing, and I said, I don’t know, I guess if I had put it in size, it might be 15 miles to the next town or house.
This whole idea that your house has a fence and a yard, I didn’t grow up like that. I didn’t grow up in that kind of house.
I grew up in a double-wide trailer next to my paternal grandparents’ house. I learned to drive when I was ten. I was driving by myself when I was thirteen, but everybody drove really young. You had to get places. They were all too far to walk to.
HUMANITIES: At thirteen, were you driving without a license?
LOWE: Yeah. When I turned sixteen, I got my license.
HUMANITIES: Was the Navajo language used frequently in your community? Did you hear it a lot growing up?
LOWE: Yes. I would hear my grandparents talking to their relatives and friends, and they often spoke Navajo and only Navajo. And we also heard it at church, where we sang hymns in Navajo and in English and then read Scripture in Navajo and in English.
Teacher’s aides and the cooks, you know, the staffers in the school, they all spoke Navajo primarily. They didn’t speak English very often. It was common to hear both Navajo and English being spoken wherever you went.
HUMANITIES: I’ve heard you introduce yourself in Navajo. What is it that you say when you meet a person for the first time?
LOWE: You start with a greeting, yá’át’ééh, which means, It is good. You put the positive out into the greeting, and the person says back, Yes, it is good.
This excerpt originally published as "Saying Hello in Navajo: An Interview with Shelly C. Lowe" in the Summer 2022 issue of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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