CROWNPOINT, N.M. (AP) – Inside a study room at Navajo Technical University here, a class of seven employees from the Navajo Nation Judicial Branch is taking steps to enhance the Navajo language in tribal courts.
The voice of Esther Yazzie-Lewis, the group’s instructor, echoed from the room on a recent Wednesday as the students listened while surrounded by laptops, headphones and textbooks.
While Navajo is used daily in the 11 district courts under the judicial branch, the students are part of a pilot program that started in August to transcribe and interpret the Navajo language.
Yazzie-Lewis, who interprets Navajo in tribal and federal courts, explained the format for legal documents.
“You have to give it that professional style,” Yazzie-Lewis said.
The program, a collaboration between the branch and the university, has students learning court transcription and interpretation in Navajo and English.
When graduation arrives in December, they will have completed 32 credit-hours in courses that focus on legal terminology, technical writing, Navajo language and culture and introductions to tribal, state and federal courts.
The group is comprised of court clerks, a traditional program specialist and an office technician who understand and speak Navajo and work in courts in Crownpoint and Ramah, and in Chinle, Dilkon and Window Rock in Arizona.
For the students, the program is helping them develop knowledge about the Navajo language, in addition to enhancing their skills to carry the language forward in the tribal court system.
“I think this program is very beneficial, and it was needed. We can go back and help our people,” said Ruby Frank, a traditional program specialist with the Peacemaking Program in Ramah.
They attend class on weekdays and use any available material to practice writing in Navajo, including translating the Bill of Rights and phrases written on posters hung in the study room.
The courses are not without challenges. One such hurdle for students was learning how to identify the correct meaning of a word by understanding the context in which it is used. Adding to the challenge is how words in Navajo can vary in meaning from region to region, said Maris Roe, an office technician for the Ramah Judicial District Court.
“We have to agree on how we’re going to write the word out. Is it this or is it that?” Roe said.
Peggy Bahe, a court clerk for the Dilkon Judicial District Court in Arizona, said: “We thought we spoke Navajo, but there’s so much out there as far as the Navajo language that we don’t even know.”
Rhiannon Guerro, a court clerk for the Crownpoint Judicial District Court, said to grasp the meaning of the word, students must understand the circumstances that form the statement.
“Especially when judges are making their ruling. Sometimes they’ll say it in English, but when they say it in Navajo, there is more meaning to it,” Guerro said.
After working as a court clerk for 28 years, Shirley Leonard said she was looking for an opportunity to enhance her skills so she applied for the program. She said the classes have been “an eye opener” and it was beautiful to learn about the court’s relationship to traditional Navajo values and philosophy.
Throughout the weeks, the members of the group have formed a bond that serves them well when tackling homework.
“It’s nice to have my sisters here. You know, we call ourselves the Magnificent Seven,” Roe said.
Ronda Lewis, a court clerk for the Window Rock Judicial District Court, said she is not fluent in Navajo but receives help from her classmates, including co-worker Joann Plummer.
“We help each other. We work with each other,” Lewis said.
Ralph Roanhorse, the branch’s human resources director, said the program was developed because the courts receive requests to transcribe testimony in Navajo.
The program was funded by a $150,000 grant from Tribal Justice Support under the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“It had to be a full-time dedication,” Roanhorse said about the student participation.
Wesley Thomas, the university’s dean of graduate studies, helped develop the curriculum and criteria for the program. By training staff members to use the Navajo language, it holds the courts accountable for services to the people, he said.
“We want to make sure the courts – tribal, state or federal – there is a voice of Navajo people,” he said.
Yazzie-Lewis, the class instructor, said she hopes the judicial branch views the program as a good investment and the judges and court administrators use the skills gained by the employees.
“I think the Navajo Judicial Branch needs to see it. The judges need to see that there’s a group of individuals that are being trained specifically to transcribe English to Navajo,” she said. “They’ve gone for months to do that and sacrificed a whole lot.”