Connectivity, Analysis

Maintaining Diné K'é Online

Sháńdíín Brown

Apr 23, 2024

Diné (Navajo people), like many other Indigenous people across the globe, learn cultural knowledge by observing older relatives. Despite physical separation, communication within Diné familial systems has evolved in order to teach cultural knowledge including traditional stories, family histories, artistic practices, and Diné Bizaad (Navajo language). Through Facebook and other social-media sites, an individual can learn cultural knowledge from someone they have never met in real life. For Diné survivance, digital platforms like Facebook are used to strengthen in-person kinship networks and to build new digital networks. The persistence of Diné culture, lifeways, and world-building relies on these networks. 

An elder Diné woman and her daughter each with baskets in their hands to demonstrate weaving techniques to young non-Native children in a school setting.

The author and her mother demonstrating Diné artistic practices to schoolchildren circa 2005. Courtesy the author.

Historically, Diné k'é (kinship) education systems existed within a subsistence society in which Diné predominantly practiced pastoralism. Diné writer Dr. Laura Tohe states, “In the traditional Diné culture long ago, since there were no professions in the Western sense, one did not identify the self as teacher, writer, or cook. Instead roles were defined by age, sex, and kinship… As she matures, she is groomed by the female members of her family in preparation for a greater role, as a leader for her family and community. The Diné cultural custom of knowledge dissemination through kinship systems has been systematically challenged since the U.S. government began colonizing Diné land. Beginning in 1863, the U.S. army forced Diné to march from Diné Bikéyah (Navajo homelands) in northern Arizona, southern Utah, southwest Colorado, and western New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, an internment camp in eastern New Mexico. Diné were imprisoned at Bosque Redondo until 1868 when Diné leaders signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo with the U.S. federal government. Under treaty stipulations, Diné returned home. The newly formed Navajo reservation was directed by the U.S. federal government, and white-owned trading posts, missionaries, and boarding schools were established on the reservation.

As time progressed, so did the need to work for wages. By the 1920s, Diné subsistence lifestyles that nurtured education through kinship systems became hard to maintain. In the 1930s the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a U.S. federal agency within the Department of the Interior, announced that Diné families’ livestock overgrazed the Navajo reservation. In response, the BIA implemented the Navajo Livestock Reduction program and purchased Diné livestock for very little and slaughtered them. To follow this traumatic program, the BIA made a special effort after World War II to promote off-reservation wage labor to Diné men. In 1956 Congress passed the Indian Relocation Act, which facilitated Native American men and women, including Diné, to move off the reservation and work jobs in major cities. Over the course of about 100 years, the U.S. government continuously implemented policies to force Diné into the American capitalist economy. This shift from subsistence pastoralism to capitalism physically separated kinship networks. 

A historical photo in black and white of sheep herds

Sheep at Tuba City, Arizona, brought in for their annual disinfecting, a procedure ordered by the government, December 13, 1934. (AP Photo)

For Native people who live far from their home communities, social-media sites are avenues for cultural education and connection. Many Native people across the country actively counter colonial assimilationist tactics and enthusiastically share cultural knowledge both in-person and online. In 2006, Facebook opened to the general public. By 2023, it was the most used social media platform in the world with about 3 billion monthly active users. Despite the platform's adverse social outcomes such as misinformation campaigns, data-mining, and political polarization, it is an accessible way to stay connected and share knowledge. Various Native Nations’ language revitalization occurs across the platform; in my experience, Facebook has become the main platform to learn Diné Bizaad because speakers are very willing to engage with others. One of these groups, Navajo Language (Diné Bizaad), is notably large with 34K members. If one has cell service or Wi-Fi and a smartphone or computer, they stay connected to other Diné whether one is physically on the Navajo Nation or not.

A fair amount of my Diné family members, some who live on the reservation and some who do not, use Facebook. In 2010 the platform introduced Facebook Groups, which is a function of the platform that allows for users to join as members of a group and engage with others frequently. A few years ago, for instance, one of my relatives started a Facebook Group for the grandchildren of my great-great grandmother Leona Begay. There are 132 of us in this group and it is an online space to share life updates and invitations to in-person events as we all live all in different areas. 

Diné live all over the U.S. and world for a myriad of reasons, especially employment opportunities. In 1980, 20.9% of Navajo Nation citizens lived off the reservation and in 2010 that percentage increased to 52.7%. Likewise, I moved from the Southwest to the East Coast for my current museum job and I live about 2,500 miles away from my home community in Arizona. In my position at the museum, I curated an exhibition titled, Diné Textiles: Nizhónígo Hadadít’eh (They Are Beautifully Dressed). The exhibition recontextualizes the museum’s late-19th-century Diné textile collection as works of fine art and couture garments made by skilled Diné weavers once known. To highlight their aesthetic legacies of geometric designs, complex relationships of positive and negative spaces, and utilization of color for emotional introspection, the exhibition also includes contemporary Diné textiles and contemporary art. Being now based in Rhode Island, I relied on technology for this curatorial project. Utilizing social media and Facebook Groups, I researched Diné history and theory, consulted with Diné weavers, and incorporated Diné Bizaad into the exhibition text. I could not have curated this project alone and I needed my family and community’s assistance. 

Through Facebook, my family was very helpful in incorporating Diné Bizaad into the exhibition text. I am a Diné Bizaad learner and not fluent. Shimásání (my maternal grandmother) was fluent in Diné Bizaad and always practiced with me. She passed away a few years ago and, in her memory, I am a Diné Bizaad learner. Diné weavers in the late 19th century spoke Diné Bizaad and to honor their memories, I incorporated Diné Bizaad into the exhibition text. For certain words, I needed help with English to Diné Bizaad translations. When I had questions, I messaged individual family members and also made a general post for my friends and family to see. My family was very willing to help me through Facebook from thousands of miles away. 

When Diné introduce ourselves, we say our clans in Diné Bizaad to establish kinship relationships with others. Diné familial relationships extend beyond the nuclear and to our clan structures. Our kinship systems are matrilineal, meaning we identify who we are by our mother's clan. In the digital realm, we use social media to sustain these webs of relationality. In particular, a Facebook “friend request” is an invitation to be in community: By clicking “accept friend” one enters into a reciprocal digital relationship. In comparison to Instagram, where one user can follow another user who does not follow them back, Facebook favors staying connected with non-digital networks. Its users are in relationship through main feeds, groups, and the messenger app.

Screenshots of a Facebook post and comments.

The author's conversation with friends and family members in Facebook comments to determine the best Diné Bizaad word for "saddle blankent."

The dissemination of knowledge from family members is a core element of Diné livelihood, and Diné continue to adapt to the world as the world around us changes. I shared a summary of the exhibition and installation images and on Facebook for my networks, especially my family to see. When I am an elder and ready to prepare the next generation, another social media site or form of technology will probably replace Facebook. We will adapt and shift, something we have always done.

1

Tohe, Laura. “There Is No Word for Feminism in My Language.” Wicazo Sa Review 15, no. 2 (2000): 103–10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1409467.

2

Iverson, Peter, and Monty Roessel. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

3

Ibid.

4

Weisiger, Marsha. “Gendered Injustice: Navajo Livestock Reduction in the New Deal Era.” Western Historical Quarterly 38, no. 4 (2007): 437–55. https://doi.org/10.2307/25443605.

5

Youngdahl, Jay. Working on the Railroad, Walking in Beauty: Navajos, Hozho, and Track Work. University Press of Colorado, 2011. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt4cgs4h.

6

Burt, Larry W. “Roots of the Native American Urban Experience: Relocation Policy in the 1950s.” American Indian Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1986): 85–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/1183982.

7

Hall, M.. "Facebook." Encyclopedia Britannica, March 24, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Facebook.

Sháńdíín Brown éí Kinyaa'áanii niloó bi'dizhchį́. Bilagáana yáshchíín, Tł'ízílání dabicheii dóó Bilagáana dabinalí. Béésh Haagéédéé’ naaghá. Ndi Wóód Áalin Hahoodzodi éí kééhat’į́ k’ad. Sháńdíín Brown was born into the Towering House clan, for the white man. Her maternal grandfather’s clan is the Many Goats clan and her paternal grandfather was white. She is from Coppermine, Arizona, and currently lives in Rhode Island.

Sháńdíín is a curator, creative, and citizen of the Navajo Nation. Joining the RISD Museum in 2021, she was the first Henry Luce Curatorial Fellow for Native American Art and has been recently promoted to the Assistant Curator of Native American Art. She leads the museum’s America’s Research Initiative, a program supporting the study of Native North American museology, art and works of cultural heritage. While at the RISD Museum, she co-curated Being and Believing in the Natural World: Perspectives from the Ancient Mediterranean, Asia, and Indigenous North America (2022–23) and Take Care (2022–23). Brown’s newest exhibition, Diné Textiles: Nizhónígo Hadadít’eh (2023–24), explores the intersections of Diné apparel design, weaving and womanhood. She has co-taught in RISD’s Apparel Design department, where she is a recurring critic.

Brown’s research interests include multitemporal Native North American fashion and jewelry, global contemporary Indigenous art and Indigenous feminism and futurism. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College, where she earned her BA in Anthropology and Native American Studies and minored in Environmental Studies. Previously she held positions at the Heard Museum, Hood Museum of Art, Penn Museum, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) and School for Advanced Research (SAR) Indian Arts Research Center (IARC).

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