FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — More people speak Navajo at home than any other Native American language, a seemingly promising 169,000 people at a time when some tribes have lost their native tongue or are struggling to retain the words of their ancestors.
Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, a Navajo professor at Northern Arizona University, said the figure recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau is no surprise, but can be misleading. The country's population of Navajos is well over 300,000. For every one who speaks the language, one doesn't — and those are likely younger Navajos, Yazzie said.
"Navajo has the largest population, they say, of Native speakers, but it also has the largest population of non-speakers," she said Wednesday. "And it kind of presents a skewed picture."
The figure is based on five-year estimates from community surveys that allowed the Census for the first time to study small segments of the U.S. population. The Census found in a study released this month that fewer than a half-million people age 5 and over speak a Native American language at home. About 65 percent of them are in nine counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska.
The surveys don't gauge the level of fluency but ask whether a language other than English is spoken at home. If so, respondents are asked to write something in that language. Navajo topped the list of the 20 most frequently spoken Native languages, followed by Yupik and Dakota, each with 19,000 speakers.
Apache County in eastern Arizona, which encompasses parts of Navajo, Fort Apache and Zuni land, has the highest number of the speakers at 37,000. McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico, which also has a large population of Navajos, followed with 30,000.
The Census data shows that people 65 and over who identified as either Native American or Alaska Native spoke their language, but when it came to people age 5 to 17, only one in 10 did. The age groups showed no significant difference among those who identified as a combination of racial groups, the Census said.
The loss of Native languages is rooted in a history that includes the federal government's attempt to eradicate Native American culture by sending children to boarding schools and punishing them for speaking their language.
"That's one thing all Indian nations suffer from," Yazzie said. "Youth are ashamed of that because it caused a lot of harm. ... Now we're trying to turn that around and say, 'The languages are beautiful.'"