By Ray O’Hanlon
The language of the Navajo tribe helped win the war against the Japanese.
The story of the language and its use as an unbreakable communications code has been raised to new prominence in recent weeks by Hollywood with the movie “Windtalkers.”
But a long time after the war, and a far cry from Tinseltown, the language of the Navajo is in a battle of its own. It’s a struggle to survive in a world where languages of ethnic minorities are increasingly being displaced by world tongues such as English and Spanish.
But there’s possible help for the beleaguered Navajo language just over the butte.
It’s a language that has faced numerous travails over the years and at one point was driven to the very limits of its own world.
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That language is Irish. And the man who is poised to lead Irish in a potential rescue charge across great expanses of the American West is Irish American.
Pat Carr is a native of Inwood, at the Northern tip of in Manhattan, but his view these days is not of city streets, bodegas and Irish bars.
It is of red rocks, far horizons and big skies, the world of the Navajo reservation, a vast expanse that ropes in a West Virginia-sized slice of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
This is Pat Carr’s new world. He reckons it needs a helping hand from his old one.
Carr is president of the Indian Educators Foundation, an offshoot of the American Federation of Teachers, which is itself part of the AFL-CIO.
When Carr is working out of his main office, it is an urban enough setting, in Albuquerque, N.M.
But when he spoke recently of his work with the Navajos, Carr was looking out a window in the town of Gallup, which is little more than a trading post on the Navajo reservation. It is a place where red rock far outweighs poured asphalt and an exact population is extremely difficult to estimate because people are coming and going all day and every day.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Carr was looking at rocks other than the red variety. They were of the gray and rain-splashed sort familiar to any native of Ireland’s west.
He had traveled to Ireland along with other union leaders, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney among them, in a party organized by the group, D.C Friends of Ireland.
Carr’s family roots are in counties Down and Mayo, the latter county being one that effectively became part of a reservation for native Irish speakers back in the 17th century, but one where Irish is prospering anew as a result of more imaginative government policies than those of former years when Irish was mandatory in schools, its teaching resented by legions of kids as a result.
Carr had been recently made aware of the revival of Irish, largely spurred by the “total immersion” techniques fostered in Irish language schools, not just in the West of Ireland but also Dublin, heart of what was once the English-speaking Pale.
While in the Irish capital, Carr paid a visit to one such school on the North Side of the city.
“I arrived only to find that the school was closed because Ireland were playing Saudi Arabia in the World Cup,” Carr said.
The Irish model
Undaunted, he sought out and managed to meet during his Irish sojourn with a number of Irish language advocates.
And what he heard from them he now believes can form the basis of a plan for reviving the language of a people who, like the Irish, were pushed to the very edge of their world, both culturally and geographically.
Carr, whose actual employer is the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, has been working with native American tribal groups since the late 1960s and the end of his service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“It was the kind of thing a lot of people did back then,” Carr said. “I suppose it was inspired to some extent by Kennedy’s ‘what you can for your country’ line.”
The 8,000-member Indian Educators Federation runs schools in 24 states and Carr has been in just about all of them.
His own particular responsibility is the Dennehotso boarding school in Arizona, close to the Four Corners.
He has worked with many tribes, but the Navajo seem to have captured his imagination, just as they captured the imagination of the military for very different reasons sixty years ago.
Carr, however, does not view the Navajo language as an instrument for strategic advantage. It is, to him, far more than that.
“When I started working here about 90 percent of the kids going to the schools spoke Navajo and 10 percent spoke English. Now it’s the other way around,” Carr said.
Not that he’s against English. He’s all for it and well understands its vital role in advancing the Navajo economically.
But Carr is a firm believer in the virtues of a bilingual education, particularly when the survival of an ancient culture is at stake.
If Irish and English can function side by side, so too, he argues, can Navajo and English. But such a partnership is going to take time, money and planning.
“Unfortunately, most native Americans do not at this time have the resources to provide the kind of total immersion offered in the Irish language schools,” he said, “but I believe there is much to be learned from what is going on in Ireland right now.”
For Carr, working with the Navajo has been an education in and of itself. And also a clue to what his own ancestors went through in a far gone Ireland.
“A few years ago I was working in a rural government boarding school,” he related. “I was having a great time introducing video cameras, computers, telecommunication distance learning and all that. Then one day I was approached by local community leaders who said that their real concern was not for all of my toys, but the loss of their language, history and culture.”
The Navajo leaders were clearly convincing talkers because from that moment they had converted Pat Carr’s job into a mission.
Carr set about studying the theory and practice of bilingual education and in time designed a Navajo/English program that was awarded $1 million in grant aid by the U.S. Department of Education.
“What I learned was that not only could we successfully build upon the language and cultural heritage that children bring to our classrooms, but that failure to do so will be judged by history as a form of child abuse and cultural genocide.”
At present, according to Carr, the effort to educate Navajo children in a bilingual setting is small scale. The most successful program is being carried out at a school in Fort Defiance, Ariz. But starting small has many virtues, Carr believes.
“They need to start small if that is where they actually are at,” he said. ” Eventually, they can design and develop programs for full immersion, just like they are now doing in Ireland.
“Should this be the path Native Americans wish to follow, I am sure they will find support and encouragement from the Irish, who have long memories and a fond remembrance of good people who do the right thing.”
Carr sees himself first and foremost as a planter of seeds.
As part of his mission he hopes to return to Ireland to learn more about how Irish is being given a new chance to become a living language.
With that knowledge in hand, he will return to the Navajo. He will talk the talk and, with luck, blow his seeds of learning to the four winds.