Navajo Library Wants To Preserve Oral History And Save Culture

By Laurel Morales
January 02, 2017

The Navajo Nation Library wants to preserve thousands of hours of oral history. The task -- to digitize 300 reels of tape. But that costs money.

It’s been Navajo Nation Library Director Irving Nelson’s life’s mission to preserve the knowledge and traditions contained on these reels.

The Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity traveled the entire reservation gathering the stories in the 1960s. When the office closed the employees gave the reels to the library.

Nelson said most of the storytellers have since passed away.

“I love listening to them,” Nelson said. “They bring back memories of my grandfather gathering us in a hogan when we were small children. He used to tell us the coyote stories.”

A tradition that many say is dying. 

Some of the tapes have been translated into English. But Nelson said the stories could be used in Navajo schools and serve as an impetus to learn the Navajo language.

He cited a study done in the 1980s that showed half of all Navajo Head Start children were bilingual. Just recently another survey found that none of the Head Start children knew their native tongue.

Nelson said it will cost $230,520 to digitize the reels.

He wants the tribe to pay for it, not the federal government. Because of the sensitivity of the stories, he said they should be only available to Navajos.