Robert S. McPherson,
Dineji Na 'Nith
(University Press of Colorado, 2012)

Robert S. McPherson is a scholar, a professor of history at Utah State University. But what he presents in this book is intended to introduce the layperson to traditional Navajo teachings and history and is based on some 30 years of working with and listening to Navajo elders.

That simple word, listening, is most important. Too often cultural interpreters with roots outside a society are prone to give impressions based on their own experience rather than hearing and understanding what they're being told.

In contrast, McPherson quotes extensively from his sources and does his best to put their words in a context that will be understood by the non-native reader. This is, obviously, not as simple as some might think. It's not just a matter of substituting words in one language for those in another. It's necessary to understand the underlying thought in one language and explain it in another.

For example, he notes the word "myth," which in English can mean something untrue, to the Navajo is generally taken as the sacred explanation of a fact.

For the reader with an interest in language and its application, McPherson shows that metaphor is pervasive throughout the culture. "...Stories and teachings are extensive, surpassing many other Native American groups in complexity, while its linguistic syntax emphasizes cultural priorities." He illustrates some examples of how the Navajo have used metaphor to convey modern terms in the ancient language.

In nine chapters, complete with footnotes, McPherson covers a wide range of topics. These include historical events such as the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, conflict with government attempt at affiliation early in the 20th century, harmonious relations with an Episcopalian missionary priest and a nearly 80-year battle over repatriation of Indian artifacts. He also explores topics like divination and witchcraft, traditional teachers and concerns for the future of the culture as the younger generation assimilates.

book review by
John Lindermuth

13 July 2013

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