Anyone with a battery-powered radio can listen to any of a handful of Navajo language stations that cover the reservation with sound waves.
Locals tune in to KNDN, the Navajo language radio station based in Farmington. They also can listen to AM stations KTNN, out of Window Rock, Ariz.; KGAK, out of Gallup; or FM station KTDB, out of Pine Hill.
Service areas of the three AM radio stations overlap, according to maps provided by the Federal Communications Commission. Depending on the time of day and other activity on the airwaves, all three stations can be heard in some areas of the reservation.
Although each station broadcasts mainly in Navajo, each caters to a specific, Navajo-speaking audience, said George Werito, program manager at KNDN.
"We don't try to compete," he said. "We overlap our services. We all try to give our listeners Navajo language."
Heard at 960 AM, Farmington's KNDN was the first station to broadcast in all Navajo, stations manager Kerwin Gober said. Gober manages KNDN, its sister station, KGAK, out of Gallup, and the FM station KWYK, in Farmington. KWYK is an English-language station that plays adult contemporary music.
The two AM stations, which broadcast in Navajo, act as the lifeblood for a language in danger of disappearing.
"This is the Rosetta Stone of the radio," Gober said. "We broadcast in Navajo, we do everything in a traditional sense. And it's free."
The station, which reaches as far as Cuba and Monticello, Utah, has become a major source of communication for Navajo residents, Gober said.
"Radio has traditionally been a large source of communication here," he said. "Electricity has only gone in to some of these places within the last 10 years. KNDN is locally oriented and accessible to listeners."
Established in 1957, KNDN transitioned to an all-Navajo station in 1977, said Gober, whose father built the station two decades before.
"Dad always said he didn't know how long this was going to last," Gober said. "The reality is that there are possibly more people speaking Navajo now than ever before, and KNDN is an important part of getting the young people interested in learning to speak or allowing older people who forgot the language to learn to speak it all over again."
KNDN programming caters to listeners in the Eastern Navajo Agency and the Four Corners area, Werito said. Werito hosts a daily talk show from 6 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday.
The station plays English country music, native chants and "rez bands" throughout the rest of the day, Werito said.
"We play a lot of different tribal music," he said. "There are so many different tribes that tune in."
The station also allows listeners to walk in and make personal announcements on the air, a practice usually prohibited by Federal Communications Commission regulations, Gober said.
"The FCC gave us special permission to do personal messages," he said. "Because of the audience being so isolated, we were exempted from that rule."
KNDN is the station to listen to for announcements about family news, deaths or other information. For example, the station often relays news of individuals being released from San Juan Regional Medical Center, Gober said. Those patients are in need of a ride home.
"Somehow, after we put that message on the air, those people always get a ride home," he said.
Listeners are welcome to participate in the "Diné Speak" program at 12:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Anyone can enter the studio during "Diné Speak" and make an announcement.
Locals also fax as many as 100 announcements per day to the station, Gober said. These announcements serve as sole invitations to chapter or grazing committee meetings, community activities and alerts to weather conditions, road closures or changes in government.
The station reaches Navajo listeners from all walks of life, Werito said. It serves as a cohesive for people who otherwise have little means of communication.
"People come up to us and shake my hand; they say they like what we do," Werito said. "People say they listen everyday, that what we say made them smile, made them laugh."
The station is much more than entertainment, however, Gober said. Listeners tune in for information and a connection to their culture they don't get anywhere else.
As many as 40 percent of Navajo residents live without running water or electricity. Few have telephones and many speak little or no English.
"We're a little place doing a little thing," Gober said. "We're not saving the world, but in this corner of the world, we're doing something important. We're more a part of (listeners') lives than just casual entertainment."
KTNN, broadcasting from Window Rock, Ariz., is one of the largest indigenous language commercial signals in the world. It is located at 660 AM.
The station, licensed to the Navajo Nation, went on the air in 1986, said Michael Wagner, assistant chief of the Federal Communications Commission's audio division. It reaches a broader audience than the other two AM stations put together.
"KTNN is a pretty big station, partly the result of it being a 50,000-watt AM station, and partly the result of physics," he said. "KTNN is in the lower end of the AM band, 660 KHz, and its signal simply goes further and better than would even a 50-kilowatt station in the upper portion of the AM band."
KTNN provides programming that spans the Navajo Nation and outlying cities as far away as Phoenix and Albuquerque. Its daytime signal covers the entire Four Corners area.
Its nighttime signal, however, can be heard throughout much of the western United States, reaching as far away as California and into the Pacific.
KTNN broadcasting includes local, regional and national newscasts, weather updates and religious programming. It also includes segments dedicated to chapter news, funeral announcements, rodeo reports and central Navajo government reports.
The station plays country music, gospel songs and American Indian music.
Because it is owned by the Navajo Nation, KTNN is bound to serve the needs of the people and the government. Although it is a for-profit organization, it provides bilingual broadcasts of news, livestock reports, the president's report and public service announcements.
"Many households in KTNN's listening area do not have access to cable television, and those that do, receive local network stations originating from Albuquerque and Farmington, leaving a large void for information directly related to those living on and around the Navajo Nation," the station's website states.
The station's Internet presence also allows Navajo listeners from around the world to tap in, said Paul Jones, news director for KTNN.
"We get e-mail from around the world, like from Iraq and Afghanistan and from Canada," he said. "Navajos are all over the globe, in the armed forces and married into other nationalities. They listen online and e-mail KTNN."
One such e-mail came from a Navajo woman living in Nova Scotia for the last 50 years, Jones said.
"She said she mostly lost her language, then she went online and found KTNN," he said. "She stayed with it, listened, recorded it, then started teaching her children and grandchildren. Now there's a family in Canada getting back into the language, learning it together."
The station faces challenges with its native language broadcasts, however, a Northern Arizona University report found.
The report, published in 1997, found that Navajo announcers traditionally have tailored their language to an older, monolingual audience because many of the younger generation do not seek Navajo broadcasts.
About 90 percent of the programming is in Navajo, Jones said. Newscasts also are repeated in English. Bilingual broadcasting helps reach a larger demographic of listeners, he said.
Jones also provides a program segment called "Navajo Word of the Day," during which he says a word in Navajo, then translates it into English, including definition and how to use the word in context.
"It started as kind of a joke," he said of the segment, which has gained popularity. "Then the kids started using it to learn words and teachers started asking them to bring the word of the day into the classroom, for credit."
The complex nature of the Navajo language, however, sometimes propels deejays to favor English terms. The 1997 report found that KTNN deejays substitute English terms into Navajo broadcasts for clarity or succinctness. This practice is called "codeswitching."
"Many of the deejays at KTNN find it necessary to codeswitch even where there is a traditional Navajo term available," report author Leighton Peterson wrote. "For example, when faced with making a 30-second commercial, it is quicker for an announcer to say Window Rock' than Tséghahoodzání.' Furthermore, it is possible that neither the announcer nor some members of the audience will know the Navajo name for Window Rock."
The station, despite challenges, helps "normalize" and preserve the language, which differs in dialects across the reservation, Jones said. Deejays have received complaints that they are "slaughtering the language," but a continuous source of the spoken language can help maintain it, he said.
"People that live in the western part of the reservation have a certain kind of dialect," he said. "When you talk, they laugh about you, it sounds funny. The New Mexico part of the reservation, they have more complaints. They tell us how the word is supposed to be pronounced. I get in trouble there."
To help solve this problem, Jones sometimes translates a Navajo phrase into English, then back into Navajo, he said.
"I say it in Navajo for the western portion, then I say it in English, then I have to reinterpret it for the eastern side of the reservation," he said.
Broadcasting in the Navajo language predates the Window Rock, Ariz., and the Farmington stations.
KGAK, heard at 1330 AM, is a Gallup station acquired by Basin Broadcasting in 1998, Wagner said. Its previous licensee was Gallup Broadcasting, and it has not always broadcast exclusively in Navajo.
"This station has been on the air forever, prior to 1953, which is as far back as our records go for this station," Wagner said. "I thought our paper files went all the way back. Not for this station, though."
KGAK earned a George Foster Peabody Award in 1954 for a program called "The Navajo Hour." The award is given to broadcasters who exhibit distinguished and meritorious service.
In 1973, the first native-owned, native-language station in the country, KTDB FM, went on the air in Navajo from Pine Hill, serving the Ramah area. It can be heard at 89.7 FM and is licensed to the Ramah Navajo School.
Other Navajo language broadcast programs have included several public and private radio stations, as well as a Navajo television station, NNTV 5. Navajo programming also can be heard at several local Christian radio stations.
Because KGAK and KNDN are owned by the same entity, the stations share information, programming and staff, Gober said. Together, the stations' coverage area spans most of the New Mexico portion of the reservation.
Some deejays broadcast from both locations, sometimes in a single day, Gober said. Other deejays travel from as far away as Crownpoint to work a shift.
The two stations, despite a near-monopoly on the Navajo-speaking market in New Mexico, face unique challenges, Gober said.
"There is some controversy about how we say things, when we do things," he said. "What other radio station in the world has to worry about playing the wrong traditional song in the wrong season of the year?"
Because the stations are local and cater specifically to speakers of an uncommon language, they do not have the luxury of using prerecorded or satellite programs, Gober said.
"A deejay is there all the time, live," he said. "Four hours of programming, all in front of the microphone."
Upgrades and more diversity may be on the horizon, however, as directors seek additional services, including broadcasts of university sports in the Navajo language. KTNN already provides this service through Cuyler Frank, a student at New Mexico State University. Frank broadcasts collegiate games play-by-play in the Navajo language, spending about three hours per week watching and broadcasting games.
"I would like to think that it's a way to keep our native culture alive," he said of his broadcasts. "Language is a part of the culture. To some extent, I like to think that I'm contributing to saving our language."
A culture of language
The Navajo, or Diné, language is considered endangered.
Although it is the most-spoken American Indian language north of Mexico, with more than 100,000 people speaking it, its use and fluency among the younger generation is on the decline.
Only 50 percent of Navajo ages 17 and younger were able to speak their native language at all in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To counteract the decline, programs and initiatives are popping up across the reservation, each promising to help preserve the language. The popular Rosetta Stone language-learning software recently released its Navajo language version in a limited quantity, mostly for use in reservation schools.
Lorraine Begay Manavi, a Navajo language teacher at San Juan College, was part of a team of linguists, editors and native speakers to help develop Rosetta Stone software, which is accessible to anyone with a computer.
"Navajo is very hard to learn," Manavi previously said. "When people first come to my classes, they are intimidated."
Not everyone has a computer, however, said Martha Austin-Garrison, a Navajo language teacher at the Shiprock campus of Diné College. Nor does everyone have a cell phone, she said.
Austin-Garrison was listening to KNDN one day and heard her name.
"My mother was at the hospital and they couldn't reach me," she said. "They put the announcement on the radio so I would know she was in a critical, emergency situation. I don't have a cell phone, so that's the only way the hospital could get the message to me."
Austin-Garrison also uses the local Navajo radio stations to supplement her teaching.
"We encourage people to listen to KNDN," she said. "If I'm teaching the upper level classes, they have to do some writing, then they have to go to the radio station and read the paper on the air."
Austin-Garrison, an avid listener of KNDN, also uses the station to spur conversations.
"Students ask questions about some of the things they hear," she said. "Sometimes they don't quite understand what is said, so we talk about it. It brings their understanding up. It also helps preserve the language."
Alysa Landry: firstname.lastname@example.org