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Navajo Language Lives On at Salina Bookshelf

  • Daniel Kraker

Most 15-year-old American kids are consumed with typical teenage pursuits, like school, sports and video games. But when Eric Lockard and his twin brother Kenneth were 15, they were starting a business. A decade later, Salina Bookshelf remains the country's only bilingual English-Navajo publisher, and one of the very few companies publishing in any Native American language.

This unusual enterprise grew out of Eric and Kenneth Lockard's unusual childhood -- as white kids living on the vast Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. "I believe there were 5 biligaana kids in a school of about 900 students," Eric Lockard recalls, using the Navajo term for whites. "The primary language spoken was Navajo, and my brother and I had Navajo babysitters growing up because our parents were teachers."

As a result, the brothers are both fluent in Navajo -- unlike many tribal members today. "In the mid to late 1980s," explains Eric Lockard, "there was a real move to only teach English, and we felt that there should be formal instruction in Navajo, and there must be a way, it was possible, because there were all these books [in the reservation schools] in English."

One of those books was Who Wants to Be a Prairie Dog, a Navajo fairy tale published in the 1940s by the U.S. government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Between doing homework and chores, the brothers collected $3,000 from family members to reprint the children's book with the English text and Navajo translations side by side.

Eric Lockard says they sold out the first edition. "From there we just reinvested the money and published more books," he says. "Throughout the years we've just built on our success."

This year the company published 20 titles, the most ever. Many of Salina Bookshelf's publications are stories for children, but the company also sells bilingual textbooks, workbooks, audio recordings and CDs. Schools on the Navajo reservation make up their largest market. Salina Bookshelf also targets school districts in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles -- cities with large Navajo communities.

The twins' mother, Louise Lockard, says the business is helping to keep the Navajo language alive, especially as English becomes more dominant on the reservation. "In the schools there's always been a need for Navajo language instruction and for Navajo language materials," says Ms. Lockard, a bilingual education professor at Northern Arizona University. "There's a shift away from the Navajo language [and] many young parents do not speak the language themselves, so they turn to the schools for these resources."

Not only is speaking Navajo essential to maintaining the tribal culture, those who learn the language also receive cognitive benefits. Professor Lockard cites research showing that bilingual students learn new ways of looking at the world because they constantly have to deal with patterns of different languages,

Strengthening traditional culture can also boost self-esteem. "I have pride in myself because I have my language," says Marjorie Thomas, a retired teacher who has written two books for Salina Bookshelf. "I can read it. I can write it. And I think, if the children continue to use the bilingual education, I feel that they may be able to feel like me, have pride in themselves."

The Lockard twins take pride in what they have done to preserve the Navajo language, and are pleased and a bit surprised by their company's success. Over the past decade, it's grown from two teenagers to a full-time business with six full-time employees and three translators. But Eric Lockard admits it wasn't easy, and he and his brother often thought about giving up.

"Because there are times when it's really difficult, you don't know if you should continue," he says. "But then you'll get a phone call from somebody in prison who says 'I really want to learn my language…can you send me audio cassettes?' You know, it's little things like that that make you want to continue."

The company eventually hopes to turn out 30 to 40 titles a year. That's a small number compared to the country's biggest publishing houses. But Salina Bookshelf has done enough to catch the eye of several large firms interested in purchasing the independent publisher, and bringing its unique output to an even larger audience.

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