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The Navajo (True Books): 10/14/09

The Navajo by Alice Osinski is one of True Books series of books that looks at different Native American nations. They are aimed at students in grades 3 to 5 but are a decent starting point for learning the basic cultural differences and important historical facts. I chose The Navajo because of an almost twenty year fascination with the Diné culture. 

In 1990 my brother and I spent our spring break on a road trip with our grandmother. We went to Phoenix and then up north to see the Grand Canyon. En route we stopped at a rest stop where various artisans were selling jewelry and other small things to tourists, right under the signs saying that vending wasn't permitted.

My grandmother and I ignored the signs as a bit of civil disobedience as she called it and we bought necklaces from a pair of women. The older one was on the look out for police and they were speaking mostly in Spanish. At the time I was in AP Spanish so I had almost no trouble understanding them. All the local dialects of Spanish have some native words thrown in so part of the game of understanding is to get the context.

The grandmother said to the granddaughter, "Uhoh esa Bilagáanaa  nos entiende." After that the Spanish words became infrequent even with the younger woman's protests of "Oh abuelita!" While I'd never heard the word Bilagáanaa before it took the spot of "gringa" and it was obvious they were talking about me.

Eighteen months later I was in a non western art history course in college that to my amusement had a long focus on Native American art. Two cultures from the area we studied at length were the Diné and Hopi. In doing the reading I came to recognize that the necklaces were of Diné designs and that the word Bilagáanaa meant white person (with much of the same derogatory connotations as gringo/a does). Since I had to learn about them anyway for the class, I went a little overboard and checked out every single book my university had and read them over course of the quarter.

So nearly twenty years later my fascination with their history and culture hasn't abated. When I saw the collection of books I instinctively picked the Navajo one.

As the book was written in 1987, the "modern ways" section is probably outdated but it was an interesting trip back in time to when my curiosity had first been piqued. Most of the book covers their recent history and The Long Walk which inspired the novel She Who Hears the Sun. There isn't much on their actual cultural beliefs but that's to be expected. They hold their traditional and spiritual beliefs as too sacred to share willy-nilly.

For a book aimed at city kids, it does a good job of trying to stay balanced especially in the history where both sides had people who didn't follow the treaties.

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