As a child, Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation, wasn’t aware that indigenous languages were threatened. Growing up on a reservation in Arizona, they were wholly immersed in Navajo language and culture. “My parents spoke Navajo on a daily basis. My grandparents, my aunts, all my immediate family spoke it. It was just there. I didn’t know that outside of the reservation, there were no Navajo speakers.”
That realization struck Nez when they went to the University of Arizona to study media arts and moviemaking. “I started to see the invisibility of Native people. So, I began to make short films about Navajo people. As I progressed, I asked myself how I could use the media tools that I’d become experienced with to help not only my community but other communities.”
“Today there are hundreds of Native American languages in various states of revitalization, preservation or maintenance,” Nez explains. For example, while some 170,000 people still speak Navajo, there is only one known speaker left in the entire world who speaks the Nisenan language of northeastern California.
Nez has made a short documentary about that surviving speaker, Alan Wallace, and his efforts to pass on the Nisenan language through a dance and performance program aimed at young people.
In addition to teaching and lecturing, Nez is using the fellowship to begin to plan how they might create a central hub for the varied media content that native communities are now producing. Another one of Nez’s short documentaries looks at KTNN 660, a 37-year-old radio station based in Window Rock, Arizona, known as “The Voice of the Navajo Nation.” The station broadcasts in both English and Navajo.
Nez, who earned a Ph.D. in Native American Studies at the University of California - Davis, has also led workshops for tribal elders across the United States, Canada, Hawaii, and Australia to teach them how to use digital tools to tell their stories in their own language.