“You always kind of think your parents are going to be there forever…You hear them tell a story and you think, ‘Oh well, I’ll hear it again.’ Then all of a sudden they’re gone.” — Zonnie Gorman, daughter of Carl Nelson Gorman, Navajo code talker
In June 2009, the people of the Navajo Nation saw three World War II code talkers pass away in less than two weeks. Their deaths not only elicited public mourning, but also served as a wake-up call. The Nation’s newspaper, The Navajo Times, reported that the number of surviving code talkers was rapidly declining and that soon they would all be gone. Recognizing the importance of these men and their place in history, the paper called on researchers to preserve their legacy. At Diné College, Dr. Miranda Haskie took up this challenge and launched the Navajo Oral History Project. She embarked on a five-year journey, travelling to the farthest corners of Diné Bikéyah—the Navajo homeland—to interview and record for posterity the knowledge, lessons, and wisdom of these veterans and other elders.
Haskie is Ashiihí Nishli, born for Tlízílaní Bashishchíín. She grew up in Lukachukai, Arizona, a small community in the heart of the Navajo Nation and just 12 miles down the road from Tsaile, the site of Diné College’s flagship campus. After earning her education, she returned home and worked as an academic advisor before eventually becoming an instructor at the college. Although Haskie holds an Ed.D. in educational leadership, she continued her education while teaching, studying Navajo language and culture at the college’s Center for Diné Studies. For Haskie, understanding one’s culture and heritage is vital. “Regardless of how many classes you take, learning Navajo culture is unending. One can devote a lifetime, but there will always be much more to learn,” she observes.
It was this deep-rooted respect for her culture and elders that drove Haskie to work for the preservation of traditional knowledge. She teamed up with professor Tom Grier of Winona State University in Minnesota and devised a strategy that stressed student involvement while employing state-ofthe- art technology to produce well-crafted documentaries. Of course implementing their strategy proved to be more challenging than devising it. Haskie and Grier had to get approval of the Navajo Nation’s institutional review board, secure a historic preservation permit, and obtain resolutions from all of the Nation’s chapters where they planned to conduct interviews.
And then there was the formidable task of devising a list of interviewees. The surviving code talkers would make up the core, but both Haskie and Grier recognized the importance of broadening their project to include elders with markedly diverse life trajectories. Haskie used her expertise to identify key figures in modern Navajo history, ranging from educators, lawmakers, and medicine men to silversmiths, artists, and weavers. Capturing as many cultural facets as possible would prove to be one of the project’s greatest strengths. In all, they interviewed 23 elders. The late Ruth Roessel, founding matriarch of Diné College (then Navajo Community College) and an instrumental figure in the rise of the tribal college movement, was one of the first to be interviewed. “Ruth was so amazing, she was my hero,” Haskie says. “I feel incredibly blessed to have known her and fortunate that we were able to capture her story.”
Elders like Roessel, who maintained a high profile in Navajo education until her passing, were readily accessible, but others were not. Some were downright difficult to locate and seemed to live as near mythological figures. Haskie drove down isolated dirt roads, knocked on hogan doors, and inquired at trading posts and chapter houses in search of these living legends. By the end of the project, she and her team had visited virtually every remote corner of Diné Bikéyah.
Once she made contact, Haskie always employed k’é, the Navajo way of treating others with respect and dignity. Oftentimes, she would discover that she shared clans with an interviewee and accordingly would use the proper title— shicheii (my maternal grandfather), shimásání (my maternal grandmother), shinálí (my paternal grandparent), shádí (my older sister), or shínaaí (my older brother) when addressing her relative. Such culturally appropriate protocol opened doors for Haskie and increased the likelihood of participation. Indeed, of all of the candidates selected for interviews, just two declined.
Haskie recruited students to conduct the actual interviews. She found that during the course of the project this younger generation came to develop a renewed interest in the culture, history, and heritage of their people. “That was the real beauty of the project,” she points out. “They wanted to reconnect to their elders.” Besides this new-found appreciation of traditional knowledge, students earned academic credit and learned practical skills in journalistic writing, editing, and audio-visual technology. Several have gone on to launch careers in journalism or have furthered their education in graduate school.
The interviews themselves typically took three days. During the first day, a team of three to five students volunteered to do work on or around an elder’s home. This meant building walkways, filling pot holes, cultivating gardens, weeding, and even digging trenches for water lines. Such good will helped build trust, allowing the team to devote the second and third days to the actual interview. Using both audio and video recording equipment, students asked prescribed questions, but also allowed the interviewee to talk about topics of his or her choice. Some elders were willing to share all of their wisdom, but Haskie always made certain that they divulged no sacred or ceremonial knowledge.
After compiling, transcribing, and editing the interviews, students at Diné College and Winona State produced a highquality documentary on each elder to be archived at various repositories, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. They also held a grand reception to premier the documentaries, complete with a traditional feast of mutton stew, roast mutton, blue corn mush, and fry bread. The college rolled out the red carpet for the elders and community alike to celebrate the preservation of one generation’s knowledge for future Diné.
“One of the great things about our project was preserving the living history of the Navajo elders while they’re still alive, as opposed to memorializing them when they’re gone,” Haskie maintains. Such living histories are more than just individual biographies; they are a reflection of a past time and place—when an Indigenous nation was rising to greatness and where the people persevered through the wisdom of their elders. In working to chronicle that, Miranda Haskie has made certain that such knowledge will never be forgotten.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of TCJ.