PhD in Diné Culture at Navajo Tech

It’s the first doctoral program offered by a tribal college.

By Melanie Lenart

Navajo Technical University President Elmer Guy stands with Wafa Hozien as they celebrate NTU’s new Ph.D. Photo courtesy of NTU

Learning how to conduct respectful community-based research will be a major component of the new Ph.D. at Navajo Technical University. As befitting for the first doctorate degree offered by a tribal college, students will learn Indigenous methodology as well as western approaches to research.

Plans call for five students to launch this fall the new online doctoral program in Diné Culture and Language Sustainability. “The emphasis will be on sustaining the distinct culture and complex language of the Navajo, also known as Diné, across a variety of disciplines, with research as a unifying theme.

Franklin Sage, a faculty member who will teach research methods and Navajo culture in the program, said the master’s-degree-holding students entering the program will start off with refresher courses in three western approaches to research: qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods.

“Once they have completed those three, they’re going to actually go into the decolonization of research. They learned all this stuff from western research—now unlearn that,” Sage said.

They’ll be considering how to weave together western ways of knowing with Navajo ways of knowing, including respectful ways to pose research questions to elders and other members of the 110 communities, known as chapters, on the reservation that expands across New Mexico and Arizona and even touches on Utah and Colorado.

“From there we go into community engagement and cultural research,” Sage said. “You get involved with the community and look at how can this research impact and help policies within the community.”

The focus on research that influences policy also suits Sage’s background, which includes serving as director of Diné College’s Diné Policy Institute. Like Sage, other faculty members involved in the program have high-level expertise along with their Ph.Ds. or law degrees: Siri Tuttle, an expert in Athabaskan linguistics and community-based research; Henry Fowler, a medicine man and mathematician; and Robert Yazzie, a retired Navajo Nation Supreme Court justice.

Fluency in the language isn’t required to enter the Ph.D. program or even to complete it, according to Wafa Hozien, an academic affairs administrator who facilitated the creation of the program. That’s because the emphasis is on sustaining the language and culture through policy, she indicated. Still, students will have to take Diné language courses if they don’t know it already, as proficiency is expected.

“In order to truly understand the culture, the language, ways of knowing, that epistemology, methodology, all the scientific stuff—you have to know the language,” Sage said.

Navajo Technical University President Elmer Guy, whom Hozien credited with envisioning the program, also emphasized the importance of language.

“We have to speak our language. We have to know who we are,” Guy said. “It has to be considered important, with the same credentialing and preparation as our professionals.”

Both educators agreed that having professionals out there who are well educated and conversant in the language will help entice more young people into seeing value in both education and the Diné language.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Sage said. “If students, younger people, see leaders have a higher degree but they’re still able to speak the language, maintain the language fluency, then they will then actually see that the language is relevant.”

Currently, the Diné language serves as an elective rather than a requirement in elementary and high schools on the Navajo Nation. Meanwhile, many young people resist higher education due to what he called “boarding school syndrome.”

Like many of the children sent to boarding schools—often without their family’s consent, in the early days—Sage was not allowed to speak his native tongue when he arrived as a 5-year-old with no English under his belt. Still, he got past the negative aspects of that challenge and eventually welcomed the lessons in self-reliance and the value of education for the modern-day Navajo Nation.

“We have the land, right? Now we need people with education to take us out of that dependency into independency,” he said. “When that happens, when a large percent of the Nation is educated and have degrees, with hopefully a larger percent having a Ph.D., that can really empower a nation and truly demonstrate sovereignty instead of just self-administration.”

The irony was not lost on Sage when world leaders celebrated his native tongue for its role in helping the allies win World War II by creating a secret code based on Diné.

“The language we were forbidden to speak was actually utilized,” he said.

Both Sage and the university president grew up with fathers who participated as code talkers during the war—although their sons didn’t learn of their fathers’ crucial service until the information became public in 1968. Guy’s background in both education and politics helped smooth the accreditation process for the Ph.D. program, he indicated. He worked during the 1990s in education administration under two previous Navajo Nation presidents, starting with Peterson Zah and including a stint as director of education under Albert Hale.

“You take steps at something. You build consensus. You find people who also agree with you,” Guy said. “I learned that by hanging around with Pete and Albert Hale and stuff like that—how they worked the system.”

His uncle, Guy Gorman, Sr., also influenced him, particularly regarding the relevance of developing culturally appropriate educational systems for the Navajo Nation. Gorman helped create Diné College (originally called Navajo Community College), which also offers undergraduate and master’s degrees.

Guy recounted what Gorman reportedly told the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which runs many schools on tribal nations, when they questioned his ability to launch an institution of higher education: “I’m not asking your permission. I’m just telling you what we’re doing.”

That attitude has stayed with him as Guy and his faculty have added program after program, taking the institution to university status over the years. When he arrived as a dean of instruction in 1999, the institution was called  Crownpoint Institute of Technology and did not have accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission.

Guy helped get that accreditation over the next four or five years. Since then, he has helped the institution shift into offering bachelor’s degrees and also master’s degrees—including one in Culture, Language and Leadership that served as a precursor to the new Ph.D. program.  He’s got his sights on a Ph.D. in electrical engineering next.

“You’ve got to show to the HLC that it’s something you’ve been building toward to do it,” Guy said. “It’s not something that you want to jump in and try to do that in a year’s time. They want to see a progressive approach, building faculty and so forth.”

University personnel celebrated the new Ph.D. on April 24, Navajo Nation Sovereignty Day.

“This Ph.D. program in Navajo culture and language sustainability, that is really to strengthen our sovereignty,” the university president said. “So then we made it that day.”   

For more information on the program, go to the website:

Melanie Lenart is a contributing editor for Native Science Report.

Story Published May 10, 2023

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