The Oral History of a LDS ’Asdzáánsání in Diné Bizaad

By November 18, 2013

Many Farms Lake

Many Farms Lake

’Asdzáánsání (elderly woman)

Diné Bizaad (Navajo language)

Before reading this post, please note that we faced technological issues with using Navajo diacritical marks on the blog so some of the Navajo here does not directly represent the revised transcript of the oral history. The two symbols that would not appear on this blog were the slashed l and nasal marks. I italicize the l (l) to represent the slashed l and italicize vowels that should include a nasal mark (a, o, and e especially). Different literature often does not follow a standard written Navajo form with consistent use of diacritical marks for terms.

This piece presents personal reflections and the discourse between me and my father, Phillip Smith, as we worked together to provide a translation of a LDS Church archival source, an oral history of a monolingual Navajo convert. I hope that these reflections can provide insights into conducting research with LDS Native Americans. As I have been developing my knowledge and experience in Native American studies, I increasingly have become aware of the importance of connections between Native American perspectives and language. My father’s first language is Navajo, but I did not start to learn the language until I was in college. I continue to study and try to learn Navajo. My father has been a major resource for me in my research and understandings of Diné bizaad (language) and culture as well as other relatives. While I was conducting research for a book project on Navajo Mormon experience in the late twentieth century, I came across a unique oral history in the LDS Church History Archives. Matthew Heiss, a Church employee, directed me to the source when we were discussing his oral histories on the Navajo reservation from the 1990s. He told me that one of his most impressive experiences on the reservation was when he interviewed a Navajo elder with the help of an interpreter.

In 1997, Heiss who worked for the Church History Department interviewed ninety-three-year-old Nanabah Bia Begay in Many Farms, Arizona with Helena Yellowhair as a Navajo interpreter. I first reviewed the transcript of the interview in the LDS Church History Library. I realized that the transcript did not include any of the discourse in Navajo. It only showed a conversation between Heiss and Yellowhair. Knowing and studying several languages myself, I knew that much is lost in translation and felt the need to listen to the interview recording that preserved the original discourse with all English and Navajo parts. In interviews with interpreters, multiple conversations occur. In the case of this oral history, the two primary exchanges followed Yellowhair and Heiss who engaged in a (English) discourse and then Yellowhair and Begay (the Navajo discourse). The tape and transcript preserve little if any of the non-verbal communications between the three individuals. Initially for my own research purposes, I asked my father to come to the archives and listen to the tape that was only available there so that he could transcribe the Navajo discourse for me. My father did not have enough time in the archives to transcribe the Navajo parts, so I then arranged with the Church Library to allow us more time and resources to transcribe the Navajo in the interview. I offered to provide this revised transcript to the library.

For almost a year, my father carefully listened to the recording and transcribed everything including the Navajo parts. He then provided his own translation of the Navajo discourse. The revised transcript preserves Begay’s words in Navajo, and it allows one to see how interviews with interpreters can follow two distinct conversations and directions (one between the interpreter and the interviewer and the other between the interpreter and the interviewee). In the case of Begay’s oral history and interview, I learn how Navajos describe their membership and experience in the LDS Church using their language and the worldviews contained in it (the language that connects them to their ancestors and times immemorial). The following parts of this post will highlight some of the revised transcript and my reflections.

Example 1.

[QUESTION]   Matthew Heiss: And, tell me how you feel about going to the temple, and what you feel in your heart in the temple?

(Question in Navajo – Helena Yellowhair): ‘Ako ‘alnanidago la’. Háálá  nt’éé le, nijei’ biyi dóó háálá la nt’éé le? Nilni.

Phillip Smith’s translation: Well, when you go there [to the LDS temple], how is your heart and how are you? He said.

[Answer in Navajo – Nanabah Begay]: Yá’át’ééh. Jó shijei’ ‘eí bil hózhó.  ‘Ako’ ‘eí kwé’é ‘eí shikéé baa dahaas’áánígíí ‘eí ‘aan’ nlei’ ‘azee’ ‘al’i’nígí sha’yéé’ nit’i’go ‘ako, ‘ako shil tadi’aash. ‘Akéédéé nili’. Salena wolyé. ‘Eí ts’ídá ‘alaa’ho’ nahali, jó ‘ako tadóó bee nizaadi nagha’. Dóó yá’á’shóó da’, na’ash. Bilagáana yil sik’é’.

Smith’s translation: Good. My heart is happy. But here, my foot has problems, but they are taking care of it at the hospital, where she takes me around (my youngest daughter). Her name is Salena. She is most active. She lives far away. It is difficult where they are. She is married to a white.

[STATEMENT]  Yellowhair:   She said her youngest daughter, named Selena who is…aah,  … married to a white, says she lives…,  [Question in Navajo to Begay]  Haidi’ bighan? Háádíísh bighan? [Where does she live?]

[Answer in Navajo] Begay:   Sal Laa [Salt Lake City, Utah]

[STATEMENT]  – Yellowhair: In Salt Lake. She lives in Salt Lake some place … and she takes her to the temple and she says she feels really good about the temple and really happy about it. And she is thankful that her daughter is able to take her to over there.

In this example, Smith’s translation reveals that Begay may have misunderstood the question as interpreted by Yellowhair. Begay explained that her heart was in good health, but her body suffers in other areas such as her foot. Yellowhair did not even mention Begay’s reference to her health and the role that her daughter plays by taking her to the hospital. Instead, Yellowhair alters Begay’s message to convey that her daughter Salena takes Begay to the temple. Interpretation is a difficult task, especially when interpreters have to work quickly and directly as Yellowhair did. However, the reader wonders if Begay really had the opportunity to express her feelings and describe her experience of going to the LDS temple because of struggles in communication. Yellowhair was also a member of the LDS Church, and she seems to intentionally offer the responses that she expects Heiss would want to hear as a Church employee.

Example 2.

[QUESTION] Heiss: …aah, Does what you learn in the temple, aaahmm…, correspond to the Navajo belief?

(Question in Navajo  – Yellowhair): Díídi ‘nlei’ sodizin bahoghan nisini’yá hádáá’ la’— t’áá ni’ Diné’ béé ‘ól’í’nígíí’ díí Diné binahaghá’ ‘at’é’ígíí béé alchi’i’. Ninanil. Nilni háléé’ yit’áo t’á’ áálhééhól’t’é’ lá’ ní’.

Smith’s translation: When you went to the Church (temple), did you compare it to the Navajo religion? He said. How are they similar? He said.

[Answer in Navajo  – Nanabah]: ‘Aoo’, Jó’ eí’, eí’ ‘ako’t’é’. ‘Ei’ Diné binahghá’ ‘ado kwo’dóó. Tá’dídíín da’ ‘eí’ dóó bee nizh’ííd da.

Smith’s translation: Yes, well, it, it is like that. The Navajo Religion and here. The Sacred Corn Pollen and others, I just don’t bother with it.

(Question  in Navajo –Yellowhair): Jó’, nlei tádíín’ niya’ háádéé, nlei temple ‘adi’, ‘eí’ Hozhó’ k’é’gó táhó’dígís’ naha’linígíí ‘at’áo’ ‘eí’ nlei’ éé’ dahaltééh dóó ‘ado’ ‘at’é’ígíí’ ‘ei’ la hait’áo táásh ‘akót’é’ nahalin?

Smith’s translation: Well, when you went to the temple, there like the Blessingway washing and like the dressings; and how they are… how do they look?

[Answer  in Navajo  –  Begay]: ‘Aoo’. ‘akot’é’. ‘Aoo’. T’áá’í’yíz’shíí, t’aa’í’yíz’shíí yá’át’ééh. Akot’é’gó’ shil tadi’aash. ‘Aoo, jó ‘ako’ daat’éégó nidahwindlah. ‘Ako’ díí ‘eí’ hol beedahozinígíí ‘eí’ shika’ ‘áándá’jíl’wó’ dóó.

Smith’s translation: Yes, it is like that. Yes. I really like it. I like it. She takes me around like that. Well, it is where it is difficult; therefore, those who know, should be helping me.

[STATEMENT]   Yellowhair:  She said she put “my Navajo Tradition stuff back, and I don’t bother it to this day because I like the temple.”

As in the earlier example, this part of the transcript reveals differences in the interpretations that Yellowhair provides Heiss. I found that my father’s translations present a particular context, which also emphasize the significance of transcribing the actual Navajo discourse between Yellowhair and Begay. My father translated “Diné binahaghá,’” for example, as Navajo Religion. I have learned that Navajos consider “nahaghá” as ritual. Navajos did not traditionally have a concept for “religion” but used terms to convey ways of life. In the context of Yellowhair and Begay’s conversation, though, they referred to “Diné binahaghá’” as religion (or at least Yellowhair meant to do so). This example shows how Yellowhair and Begay engaged in a separate dialogue by discussing different Navajo rituals and concepts that do not appear in the original English only transcript. Heiss was left out of the discussions concerning the Sacred Corn Pollen and Blessingway references. In the revised transcript with Navajo parts, readers can start to see how LDS Navajos share thoughts with each other about the correlations between Navajo traditional ways of life and the LDS gospel and practices. They would know to explore the teachings and “Diné binahaghá’” including the Sacred Corn Pollen and Blessingway.

Despite some of the misinterpretations and multiple conversations in the interview, Begay was able to express in her own language (Diné bizaad or Navajo) her decision to prepare and enter the LDS temple representing dedication to the LDS faith. Yellowhair asked her, “‘Ako’. Háá’nit’é le, ‘akoo alnanidáágó? [Well, how are you when you go there?]” Begay answered, “‘Ako’. Shijéí ‘eíya’ yá’át’ééh. Shinits’ikéés nlei’ yá’át’ééh [Well, my heart is good. My mind/thinking is good]”[1]. While Begay could recognize commonalities between the Navajo pathway and Mormon pathway as the second example indicates, she chose to follow a Mormon pathway because of such confirmations as a good heart and mind. This choice did not erase her Diné identity but changed it and how she perceived the world and life.

1. Nanabah Bia Begay, interviewed by Matthew Heiss, interpreted by Helena Yellowhair, 27 April 1997, Many Farms, Arizona, LDS Church Archives, tape recording and transcript. Phillip Smith re-translated the Navajo parts of the interview tape recording in 2013.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous


  1. This is great, Farina. I’ve found David Murray’s Forked Tongue: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts useful when approaching these issues of translation and the often-obscure role of translators in the creation of “Indian texts.” This is a key advantage of 20th century recording technology, which allows us to uncover more fully the interactions between the interpreters and the interviewee, whereas earlier interactions captured on paper usually just contain the conversation between the interpreter (normally someone of mixed ancestry) and the (normally white) recorder. I love how you and your father were able to recover the conversation between Begay and Yellowhair and how Yellowhair adapted the information to meet the expectations of Matt Heiss, the CHD employee.

    Comment by David G. — November 18, 2013 @ 11:56 am

  2. Fascinating. As a historian of a completely different time and place, these are new questions concerning not only content but also form. A lot to think about, thanks.

    Comment by Ben P — November 18, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  3. Farina, this is really something. Thank you (and your father) so much for taking the time to do all of this.

    In reading, I was reminded of Tracy Leavelle’s insightful work on French Jesuit missionaries and Algonquin-speaking peoples of New France, particularly his analysis (chapter 5 in the book, and also published separately as an article) of the multiple layers of “reception and reexpression of translated religious concepts within Native communities.”

    That, in turn, led me to wonder about translations of Mormon sacred texts and teaching materials into indigenous (American, in this case) languages. Are you familiar enough with the Navajo translation of the Book of Mormon (only selections have been translated, correct?) to speak to how this sort of thing plays out there?

    Thanks again!

    Comment by Christopher — November 18, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

  4. Thanks to all those who already commented. This work has certainly reminded me to be more careful about how I rely on translations and understand them as sources without the original language discourses.

    Yes, only sections of the Book of Mormon have been translated in Navajo. I would have to ask my dad more about how that happened. He is more familiar with it, and of course much more capable to discuss translations of Mormon sacred texts and teaching materials. I know that he taught missionaries preparing to serve on the Navajo reservation and assisted with creating Navajo language LDS teaching materials.

    Comment by Farina King — November 18, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

  5. What amazing work, Farina. Truly great stuff.

    Comment by Max — November 19, 2013 @ 8:42 am

  6. Farina, it’s so great that you were able to reconsider this interview. I assume that your and your father’s work will be added to the archival source?

    Comment by Megan F. — November 19, 2013 @ 9:54 am

  7. I will have to follow up and see how the archival source is now being treated.

    Comment by Farina — November 19, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

  8. […] Hendrix-Komoto: One of my favorite posts was Farina’s on oral history and the politics of translation. In the post, Farina explores the conversation […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Reflections on JI’s Indigenous History Month — December 13, 2013 @ 8:30 am

  9. […] Farina King, “The Oral History of a LDS ‘Asdzáánsání in Diné Bizaad” […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormons and Natives Month at the JI — January 1, 2014 @ 3:58 pm


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