Understanding the Navajo Voice

By John Stran

“Journey Into The Voice of The Navajo Creation Story” was held Oct. 22 to 23 in Youngstown State University’s Kilcawley Center in the Chestnut Room, discussing a professor’s experience studying the Navajo language and learning valuable life lessons.

The event included a video and lecture describing and discussing the Navajos’ beliefs on creation and the correlations of how all things reproduce.

Paul Zolbrod, professor emeritus of English at Allegheny College and the University of New Mexico, studied the New Mexico Navajo tribe and was the first to take old Navajo stories, previously only told through storytelling, and put them on paper as though they were narrated by the Navajo.

The event was held by First Year Experience’s PenguinThink, which is a program aimed toward first-year students and tries to broaden their understanding of beliefs unlike their own.

Zolbrod’s book, “Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story,” which was published in 1984, discusses his process of transcribing the Navajo stories into English. He said the idea of the book is still important in today’s culture to understand people have different perspectives.

“The story today is different, but there’s something underlying it that’s universal,” Zolbrod said. “There’s always a certain type of harmony that has to exist.”

Karen Becker, director of first-year experience, picked Zolbrod because he was her freshman advisor at Allegheny College.

Photo by John Stran/The Jambar

“It’s neat for me to share my freshman experience with current freshman as they begin to take on different roles at YSU,” Becker said.

Bill Pfaff, the video producer and musical composer of the event’s film, described Zolbrod’s book as a mirror of the Navajo tribe, and said the book doesn’t give the whole story of the tribe’s creation beliefs.

Because Navajo beliefs are passed down orally, Pfaff said the story itself is somewhat incomplete.

“[Zolbrod would] hear [the stories] and he’d start to notice there were patterns in the way [the Navajo people’s] phrases were put together,” Pfaff said. “The book itself is like an English analogue for how the Navajo language actually works.”

The book and lecture both went in to detail on sexuality and how it has influenced the creation of all life and today’s societal norms. This prompted Zolbrod to discuss the understanding of different genders and the power of the women’s voice, adding how important it is to understand those who differ in beliefs.

As a Pittsburgh, Pa. native, Zolbrod grew up in a Jewish family surrounded by many immigrants. Characteristics that place him very close to the victims of Saturday’s shooting within a Pittsburgh synagogue that took the lives of 11 people and injured six.

Zolbrot said he was deeply moved by what had happened and the blow of the event and what’s been happening in the country disturbs him deeply. He urges people to stay informed about the past in an effort to understand and help reverse course.

“Remember, as different as we are, you and I are of one spirit,” Zolbrod wrote in his book. “As dissimilar as we are, you and I, we are of equal worth. As unlike as you and I are, there must always be solidarity between the two of us.”

1 comment

  1. My thanks to John Stran for his vivid account of my presentation, to Bill Pfaff for his brilliantly composed video of our interview session, to Dr. Karen Becker for coordinating our visit, and to all the folks who made our visit so meaningful. I maintain deep respect for YSU’s dedication to the education of first-generation of first generation college students.

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