Man makes learning Navajo fun for children

The creator of a new TV show is trying to simplify the Navajo language for children in a fun way — through the use of puppets. (Derek Petersen, KSL-TV)

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The saying goes, lose your language, lose your culture — that's the fear among the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo language is complex. It is so difficult to crack that during World War II, the U.S. military used Navajo words to confuse the enemy.

The creator of a new TV show is trying to simplify the language for children in a fun way — through the use of puppets. Few young Navajo's speak the language of their ancestors, or as they call it, Dine Bizaad.

"The last study that I read was a little over 20% spoken in the home, and that's four years ago," said Pete Sands.

Sands is fluent in Navajo and wants the younger generation to keep it alive.

"When you pray in that Indigenous language, you sing songs in that language, what good is it if you don't know what those words mean?" Sands asked.

He's teaching children Navajo through puppets named Ash and Sadie. They're the stars of a show he's producing called "Navajo Highways." Episodes will highlight life in the Navajo Nation.

"We also want to be educational as well as entertaining," said Sands.

Sands came up with the idea after visiting a school in San Juan County.

"She was trying to tell her students to clean the classroom and they wouldn't listen to her. So, she took out this puppet," he said.

Mabel Martin is the host and teaches Navajo to students at Montezuma Creek Elementary School.

"When I was a kid, I watched Sesame Street. I learned the letters, you know, and the concept," she said.

Martin believes "Navajo Highways" can have the same impact.

"First of all, it's going to revitalize our language. Through toys, through storytelling, it'll really pick up student's attention," she said.

The hope is children will start the conversation and parents will keep it going at home. Sands and Martin said it's not about perfection, but striving to be like their ancestors and preserving their language.

"You can't have a culture without the language," said Sands.

Martin added, "Our Navajo people, here we come. Our language is coming back."

"Navajo Highways" will debut in January on Youtube and at the Sundance Film Festival.

Eventually, Sands would like to get media companies like PBS to pick it up so it can reach more people, and serve as a model for other Native American communities.

If you would like to donate to the "Navajo Highways" project, click here.

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