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Danika Wilson, 18 months, plays outside of the Tse' Daa' Kaan Chapter house, where her grandfather, Charlie T. Jones Jr., is the president. The chapter officially switched its name from Hogback about a year ago to bolster community pride and help preserve the Navajo language, Jones said.
Growing up, Baahaali Chapter Coordinator Gloria Skeet deCruz didn't know where her last name came from.

She figured, "whoever named us Skeet must have liked the sport of skeet shooting," she said.

But when she finally asked her grandfather, he told her the name came courtesy of a trading post owner named Vanderwagen in the 1920s, when Bureau of Indian Affairs officials came to register Navajo families.

For no apparent reason, the store owner told the official a number of families were named Skeet.

"There are a lot of Skeets I'm not related to," Skeet deCruz said.

Her family's story parallels that of many chapters on the Navajo Nation, named for Anglo settlers' trading posts, landmarks or bodies of water.

This spring, her chapter, formerly Breadsprings, became one of a growing number to officially switch from the English name to the Navajo name. For chapter leaders and members, the decision to change is often an intersection of practicality and community pride, reflecting the power of language as both a practical tool and a protector of culture.

During the Navajo Nation Council spring session, two other chapters, Inscription House and Burnham Chapter, also legally changed to their Navajo names, Tsah Bii Kin and T'iistoh Sikaad.

While each of the 110 chapters has a traditional Navajo name, most are known by an English or Anglicized Navajo name.

In the Tse' Daa' Kaan Chapter, located about 15 miles from Farmington, the idea came up several times during Charlie T.


Jones Jr.'s 11 years as president.

Last fall, the chapter members voted to change from the less-than-poetic English name Hogback, after the sandstone formation that runs through the community, to the Navajo Tse' Daa' Kaan.

"(We wanted) to have more ownership in the community, a little more pride," Jones said. "The Navajo language is disappearing."

The Navajo name means "rock grounded in the water," referring to a gap created by the San Juan River as it slices through the formation.

"To me, it's preserving and protecting the native language," said GloJean Todacheene, council delegate for Shiprock. "We know it's in trouble when kids are not learning it."

Only about 5 percent of Navajo children can speak the language fluently, a Navajo Nation health survey found last year.

"Most of those are names given by the early settlers, and then they moved off along their way," Navajo Nation Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan said. "The Navajo names have always been there."

But for many chapters, the changes are also pragmatic. Breadsprings, located south of Gallup, was often confused with similar, less dignified words like "bedsprings," Skeet deCruz said.

"I'd have to spell it out, and that became frustrating," she said. Other times, the chapter would receive paperwork for the similarly named Birdsprings Chapter, resulting in administrative headaches.

The name Breadsprings, in fact, is a less-than-precise translation of the Navajo name. Literally, it means "bread flowing out," after springs used by traveling Zunis to soak and soften hard road bread.

For other chapters, the Navajo name itself is less clear. Three different Navajo names have a claim on Shiprock Chapter, for example.

The community's traditional name, Tooh, means "by the water." Then there's the Navajo word for the volcanic formation Shiprock, Tse' Bit' ai, or "winged rock," and finally, Nataani Nez, the Navajo name for early 1900s Bureau of Indian Affairs agent William T. Shelton, who started the first irrigation system in the area.

None, Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie said, are exactly right for the modern chapter.

"I think (the trend) is good, it's an appreciation, an identification of our cultural heritage," he said. "For Shiprock, we would be put in somewhat of a quandary."

Lindsay Whitehurst: