Many stories, actually: a kaleidoscope of tales that, collectively, will form the narrative of one of the largest communities on the Navajo Nation. Incorporated in 2010, this volunteer, nonprofit organization is tasked with recording not only the history of Shiprock, New Mexico, but also the varied nuances that come from sharing personal accounts.
“Navajo stories traditionally were shared orally,” said Eugene Joe, CEO of the society and one of its founding members. “Everyone has a story that relates to our collective past, but if you look at stories individually, they’re not the full picture. They’re just parts. Everyone’s version of the story has different details, making the whole story richer. We’re bringing those stories back, piece by piece.”
Navajo wasn’t considered a written language until the 1940s when the first dictionaries, children’s books and newsletters were produced. Before that, history was passed from elders to children in the form of stories, Joe said.
An amateur historian, Joe, 65, first heard the call to protect and preserve history when he was only a child. He remembers creeping into a Hogan—the eight-sided traditional Navajo structure—and listening as elders lamented the changing times.
“The fire was crackling in the middle and elders were speaking,” he said. “I crept closer and an elder was crying. He said ‘I hope what we know about our history, our culture, will never die.’ Now we’re in that place where things haven’t been documented.”
The mission of the historical society is to find those valuable stories and preserve them—either in writing or by recording oral histories. These stories include personal accounts of powwows, dances, protests, politics, elections and community changes, Joe said. They also include everyday stories of growing up in Shiprock or the surrounding areas.
Founded in 1903 by a Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent, Shiprock was named after the iconic rock pinnacle that rises nearly 1,600 feet over the desert floor and looked—at least to the white settlers—like the masts of a great ship.
The name itself is an example of how culture in the northern part of the Navajo Nation was lost to European influence, Joe said. The Navajo call the monolith “Tsé Bit’a’í, or “rock with wings,” and it plays a significant role in religion, mythology and tradition.
To date, the historical society has produced four magazines—released on an annual basis—that contain a mixture of personal histories and cultural teachings. Topics include military service, boarding school stories and instructions for traditional ceremonies.
But written histories are not enough, Joe said. The society’s ultimate goal is to construct a museum where stories, photo galleries, historic documents and artifacts can find a permanent home.
Other projects include establishing a tourism center and becoming a nationally certified organization so the society can qualify for federal preservation grants, Joe said. The society also wants to increase its scope to include all 20 communities in the Northern Navajo Agency, which stretches into parts of Arizona and Utah.
By documenting stories, the society is creating a “storehouse of history,” said GloJean Todacheene, a retired educator and former tribal and county politician. Todacheene, who serves as president of the historical society, said in her 40-year career she’s seen a decline in cultural fluency.
“We are always hearing stories about the last speaker of a language dying,” she said. “It is possible for a culture to die, but the presence of a museum and a historical society will help make history richer. That will allow for some of our history to come back.”
Todacheene hopes a museum will bridge the gap between cultural teachings and contemporary life. Her goal is help elders share important knowledge with the rising generation.
“We no longer have a council of elders,” she said. “We don’t have a central source of information. We don’t have a way of preserving the essence of what it means to be Navajo. What we’re hoping to do is create a place to help Navajos understand where they came from and how to go into the future.”
The role of the society, Todacheene said, is to be a “listening ear,” to preserve eyewitness accounts of history and valuable cultural teachings before they are lost.
“Now is the time to do this,” she said. “It is much easier now to document things than it ever was before. While the knowledge is still fresh from the elders, we need to preserve it.”
To contribute stories, photographs or documents to the Shiprock Historical Society, or to request copies of the annual magazine, write to this address: P.O. Box 3230, Shiprock, N.M. 87420.