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. Yupik is an Eskimo language spoken in Alaska, while Dakota is a Sioux language spoken mainly in the Dakotas.
Apache County in eastern Arizona _ which encompasses parts of Navajo, Fort Apache and Zuni land _ has the highest number of the Navajo 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. They internalized it. ... Now we're trying to turn that around and say, `The languages are beautiful.'"
Jack Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, said around 135 Native languages are in danger of extinction and fewer than two dozen are regularly taught to children at home. Immersion is ideal, he said, but a lot of tribes lack enough fluent speakers, teaching materials or infrastructure to make it work.
The association started a Dakota language program in 2002 on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, in the northeastern corner of South Dakota and part of North Dakota. The program includes a Scrabble game, online video games, kindergarten through second grade curriculum, and hundreds of books, CDs and DVDs as teaching tools. Four elders who are fluent speakers also are part of the program.
"We see a lot more people interested in trying to use the language, a lot more awareness in the community about the importance of preserving the language," Trope said. "What I can't say is we now have X amount of fluent speakers under the age of 18. That's the ultimate goal, but it's been an incremental process."
He questioned whether the Census figure for the Dakota language was accurate, figuring the bureau likely grouped the three dialects of the Sioux language as one. He estimates there are only a few hundred fluent Dakota speakers.
The Navajo language once was an exclusively oral language, and many fluent Navajo elders cannot read or write it. Yazzie said many of her university students are the opposite, but she encourages them to speak Navajo whenever they can _ even to themselves.
Yazzie herself takes the opportunity when she encounters elderly Navajos, whose faces brighten up upon hearing the words.
"Navajo language teachers are all hopeful. That's why we teach, and we're very sincere in our teachings," she said. "I think the elders are the ones who are the loneliest because they don't hear the children speaking anymore."