When I am not translating from Swedish, I have a normal life focused around kids, cats and charitable works. One program which I participate in is called Futures for Children, where I am able to mentor a child on the Navajo reservation. Now of course, with that degree in historical linguistics in my background, the first things I acquired to enable me to be a better mentor were a dictionary and an elementary language text in Navajo, the excellent Dine Bizaad by Irvy W. Goossen.
I know not everyone reads grammar for fun, but I do. When I open the covers, I am in another world, one where the constructs of daily life as I know it disappear, and another world is glimpsed without even needing an airplane ticket. I began to wonder, as I delved into the spoken ways of the Navajo language, why those non-Natives of us in the United States and Canada are often so unaware of the Native languages which have been spoken here for millenia.
And from there I speculated: where are the literary works in Navajo? Is there a Native Navajo literature being created right now? And for that matter, how do we literati read Native cultures here? Besides some New Age believers who have appropriated Native religion, where is the general knowledge of the Native world view in our education and our bookshelves?
I began to think back to Waukegan, my hometown with a Potawatomi name. Where were the Potawatomis in our city, in our schools, in our world view? I began to research the issue and found out that the Potawatomis were exiled from Waukegan to Wisconsin in 1832 after the Black Hawk War, even though the Potawatomi people had sided with the Americans and tried to prevent the outbreak of this war in Eastern Illinois. So, one hundred and fifty-odd years later, the only Potawatomi word I learned in school was the name of my hometown, and no one living there knew where the Potawatomi people who had inhabited Waukegan had gone or why they were no longer in the place they had called home for centuries.
So, spending the week reading a Navajo grammar instruction book brought me back to the larger issues of literature and life and my place in the stream of peoples, languages, ideas and names. I might even become a better translator for it.