Memories of the Rez: Bilagáana

Here’s a fact that was the saving of me: I heard that word a million times, over about five years. Try living among — or as close as you can get to — the Diné for several years and not having your assumptions challenged. Not to mention, developing a pretty keen interest in figuring out what people are saying. In my days on the Rez — in high school and the year after — you didn’t hear English in the hallways.

You can hear it pronouned here:

Also the source for the below. I’ll be back after the definition.

“The idea behind the origin of the Navajo word bilagáana is not entirely clear. Its meaning is, though. It’s the Navajo name for white people, or people of Caucasian descent. Irvy Goosen, an author of Navajo language teaching texts, posits the idea that it evolved from the word “Americano.” Since spoken Navajo has a history of adopting words, and since it doesn’t actively use “m” and “r” it’s plausible that it went through an intense adaption process to get the word we have today. The English language is referred to as “bilagáana bizaad” in Navajo. Pronunciation: “bill-la-gáa-na” with the tone starting high and falling through the long vowel after the g.”

Me again.

Late add: in my day, there was a bit of a rumor that the word might have evolved from the Diné phrase for “smoke eaters.” But The People like to joke, so one can never be too sure.

In my white-girl understanding, and after a fair amount of study and reflection, here’s my take: the Diné are traditionally [though their traditions evolve rapidly; that’s part of their success] sheep herders, farmers and artists [spinning/weaving, silversmithing, painting … basically whatever they turn their hands to], with some distant hunting traditions that in the stories didn’t work out too well. They are loosely — though within a staggeringly complex clan structure — matrilineal, matrilocal and matriarchal.

That’s the briefest of intros. But I will be writing more about the Rez, because, I repeat, it was the saving of me. To my old friends among the Diné: Yá’át’ééh. Ahéhee’. Háázhó’ógo bee ádíní.

I’m trying to remember …


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