Mr. Nathan Brady
Navajo Language Teacher
Winslow High School / Winslow Unified School District
Most people know Nathan Brady as a neighbor, friend, husband, father, and teacher at Winslow High School. He introduces himself as a member of the Navajo tribe and one of the Salt People Clan, the first maternal clan in his lineage. Non-Native Americans don’t understand what that means. Unfortunately, many young Navajos don’t either, and that’s the problem.
Brady, a Navajo language high school teacher in the Winslow Unified School District, sees a crisis shaking the core of the Navajo Nation. He estimates that a majority of today’s Navajo youth speak English only, with very few of them able to understand, read or speak little, if any, of the Navajo language.
“The generation of kids I’m teaching now doesn’t have the knowledge of the language. They may know some basic words, but not enough to create a conversation in Navajo,” Brady says. “It’s not that the parents didn’t want them to speak it; they just didn’t make an effort to learn it themselves, so it didn’t get passed down to the next generation.”
He’s also concerned about who the Navajo Nation’s next leaders will be. According to Navajo bylaws, Nation presidents must be able to speak and understand the Navajo language. Brady wants to bring that understanding and knowledge—as well as his own passion about the language and culture—to the teens he teaches today.
Winslow High School has nearly 700 students; half of whom are Navajo. Initially, the school offered Navajo language as an elective, but later, because of the importance placed on Navajo youth learning and becoming fluent in their native language, it was approved as a foreign language course, similar to Spanish. Students could gain credit for successful completion of the two-year program.
“At first the kids are shy and hesitant about speaking. Maybe they tried to say a phrase in Navajo in the past and someone more fluent ridiculed them for not saying it correctly; or maybe they didn’t want to be laughed at, so they create this shell around themselves and refuse to speak,” Brady says. “I tell them, ‘We’re not going to laugh at you; we’re going to help you.’”
He engages students by telling stories about their native people, their honorable history, and their rich culture. He describes Navajo traditions and ceremonies, some from his own experience as a Navajo boy growing up in the area. He also shares important lessons about the clan system, which is so vital to their own sense of self and their extended family connections.
And, little by little, the students begin to respond—with a word, a phrase and then a complete conversation in their native tongue. Brady says, as a teacher, that’s the moment that touches him the most and goes straight to his heart.
“I try to bring the passion about who we are as a people and our culture to the kids,” Brady says. “Once they take ownership and embrace it, and stop being afraid to make mistakes, they realize, hey, it’s cool again to speak Navajo.”
He adds that he likes the interaction he has with his students when the light bulb finally goes off and they converse with him in Navajo. But, he loves the parents’ reactions even more when he has parent-teacher meetings.
“The best part about being a native language teacher and what keeps me going? The reactions from parents who say, ‘My son shared something you taught him in class in Navajo and it brought us back to our roots.’ They cry at these positive outcomes, and I cry with them. We go through a box of Kleenex® at these meetings,” Brady says.
Brady’s fervor about his heritage and native language comes from deep within, and he becomes very emotional when he talks about it. He recalls seeing a documentary on television about a Native American tribe in California that only has one native speaker left in the entire tribe.
“I tell my students that we have to work to keep our language alive because this is us. This is our culture. We can’t lose it or we lose ourselves.”
His voice cracks with emotion as he remembers a time in his own life when he almost “lost it.” Brady, a 10-year U.S. Navy veteran, was stationed in Japan for the first three years and his mother would record conversations in Navajo on cassette tape to send to him.
“As she was driving around, she would just see things and talk to me in Navajo, like, ‘Son, I see a Palomino horse like your old horse standing there in the field.’ Simple conversational things about our home back in Arizona. She would tell me to repeat those phrases in Navajo, along with other phrases, and record them and send them back to her.”
Brady says it was those taped conversations that kept the language alive for him when he was so far away from home for so long.
“Once a month those tapes would come to me like a gift,” he recalls, choking up at the memory. “That’s what kept the passion in me. Now, I’m bringing it back to our youth.”
“T’áá hooghando nihízaad bo’hoo’aahgoo háát’i’, ndi, Béésh Sinil hódah óltá’gi nihízaad nídahiilnaah.”
(Learning our language begins at home, but we are revitalizing our language at Winslow High School.)