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(Many Paths)
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Navajo Woman Undertakes Project To Document Native American Languages And Histories
by Katherine Locke - Navajo-Hopi Observer reporter
FLAGSTAFF, AZ - Karen Begay wants to preserve Native American languages from becoming extinct by recording and documenting tribal and family history from tribes across the United States told by elders in their own languages.

She envisions turning her work into an archive titled Native American Oral History that can be passed on to future generations. A big part of the project is capturing the time when the elders grew up, a time that does not exist now.

"We're letting the people talk in their own languages," Begay said. "Talk about their history, their family history, their tribe and their culture."

Begay, who is Navajo from the Pinyon/Whipoorwill area, explained that her brother grew up in that time. He was a Vietnam veteran. Begay said the difficulties he faced when he came back is one reason she wants to dedicate the last recording from her project to Native American veterans. She believes that veterans don't always get the recognition they deserve.

"I have a lot of respect for them," Begay said. "[My brother] wasn't the same after he came back. He grew up in a time when there was nothing but songs and ceremonies."

Her grandparents on both sides of her family believed their culture was important. Her grandpa on her mom's side was a medicine man. Her grandparents on both sides were deep into Navajo culture.

"Some of the ceremonies that they did back then, they don't do those anymore," Begay said. "My brother was a part of that."

Her inspiration also comes from a talk she heard given by Dennis Banks, a Native American teacher, lecturer, activist and author. Begay said that talk led to her traveling across the U.S. to see how other tribes were living and finding out about the difficult circumstances some of them live in.

"This is my chance to give back to the people and allow them to have a voice," Begay said.

Visiting sites where massacres of Native Americans occurred, Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn among others, moved her deeply and inspires her project.

"When you go out there, you feel it, you feel that heaviness in the land," Begay said. "It is still there, even to this day. It brings about a lot of emotion. You think about those times when those people were killed and you want to do something for your own people. So this is my way of giving back to the people."

The recordings are translated from whichever language a tribe member has spoken in and subtitled after Begay records them.

Begay said each tribe's own history and language and each family's own story is what guides her.

"It might be a traditional story, it might be a story about the tribe, it might be a story about a certain ceremony that they are familiar with, it might be a story about their kids or their grandpa," Begay said. "It can be anything as long as it's a part of history."

Her reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive, although, some of the elders of her mom's generation and her grandparents' generation were not thrilled with the technology involved.

"I told them that it is for the good of the people because somewhere down the line someone is going to want to do research and figure out where they come from," Begay said.

She also has run into younger people who are not connected to their own people.

"They don't know their language, they don't know their tribe, they don't know the history of their own people and they don't know where they come from," Begay said.

Begay's grandparents said this cultural disconnection was coming - a time when people became disconnected from their culture, traditions and languages.

"I am trying to shed some light on that and to throw a monkey wrench in there because I don't want that to happen," Begay said.

She said that fear of the loss of language drives her. In the U.S. border schools, Native Americans were told not to speak their own languages.

"I don't want to see any more of the languages die out," Begay said. "Like Pawnee, how many people do we know who speak that language? Not very many."

She also wants to keep shedding light on the positive things embracing one's culture can bring, especially language.

"We come to find out, with the Code Talkers, it saved this country," Begay said. "Things like that are very important. It connects you to the land and who you are as a person."

And there is also a simple reason Begay finds the project so fascinating and important.

"I love to hear people speaking in their own languages," Begay said.

Begay lives in Flagstaff, Arizona and attended Northern Arizona University where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She is a painter. She is currently attending Southern New Hampshire University and is working on a master's degree in English/creative writing/poetry. She eventually wants to write a book.

More information about Begay or donating to her project is available from Begay at or at (928) 606-8943.

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