The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging

The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging

The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging

The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging

Synopsis

In this ethnography of Navajo (Diné) popular music culture, Kristina M. Jacobsen examines questions of Indigenous identity and performance by focusing on the surprising and vibrant Navajo country music scene. Through multiple first-person accounts, Jacobsen illuminates country music's connections to the Indigenous politics of language and belonging, examining through the lens of music both the politics of difference and many internal distinctions Diné make among themselves and their fellow Navajo citizens. As the second largest tribe in the United States, the Navajo have often been portrayed as a singular and monolithic entity. Using her experience as a singer, lap steel player, and Navajo language learner, Jacobsen challenges this notion, showing the ways Navajos distinguish themselves from one another through musical taste, linguistic abilities, geographic location, physical appearance, degree of Navajo or Indian blood, and class affiliations. By linking cultural anthropology to ethnomusicology, linguistic anthropology, and critical Indigenous studies, Jacobsen shows how Navajo poetics and politics offer important insights into the politics of Indigeneity in Native North America, highlighting the complex ways that identities are negotiated in multiple, often contradictory, spheres.

Excerpt

An older Navajo woman stands in line in front of me at the Mustang gas station in the central reservation town of Chinle, Arizona. in Navajo, she asks the teenage Navajo cashier for kerosene. Not understanding her and distracted by the heavy metal music he is playing behind the counter, the cashier shrugs his shoulders in embarrassment. a middle-aged woman standing between us intervenes, translating the older woman’s request for the cashier. the older woman, finally realizing that the cashier doesn’t understand Navajo, complains with obvious irritation: “Yáadi lá Diné shį́į́!” (“What kind of Navajo are you?”).

In this gas station scene, Navajo authenticity, difference, and belonging all surface. Diné citizens continually negotiate points of friction about who is perceived as being more or less Indigenous through linguistic performance, practice, and related conversation. in speech communities where English is increasingly the dominant and normative language for younger Navajos, what anxieties about language loss and, by extension, Navajo traditional culture and social authenticity might underlie a charge like the one leveled by the elder? and beyond language, what of its underlying sound? the clash of an elder’s voice and a youth’s hard rock raise the question: how do Navajos strategically use sound, and speech and song in particular, in their social spaces?

The right sounds can perform authenticity, or innovation, or a blending of the two. This is also true for the central subject of this book: Diné musicians performing country music. Navajo musicians are typical of Navajo citizenry at large in that social authenticity and affective senses of belonging are routinely top of mind, fueling many friendly conversations and even public debate. Tradition and authenticity coarticulate and affect tribal citizens’ own senses of belonging, or what I call social citizenship. in the context of social citizenship, innovation and musical experimentation are often viewed with suspicion, and carving out spaces . . .

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