ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new study spearheaded by University of New Mexico Professor and Chair of the Department of Native American Studies, Tiffany S. Lee, aims to examine how learning the Diné language relates to the overall holistic well-being of Diné children and families.

The project encompasses the Diné concept of “t’áá Diné,” or identity of the people, to foster an environment where children are encouraged to be “t’áá Diné,” or deeply rooted in the Diné cultural identity, according to a writeup for the UNM Newsroom.

“Our study is also shedding some light on how learning an indigenous language, and the Diné language in particular, relates to and connects to the overall holistic well-being of children that then can help strengthen them in all areas, not just in academic achievement, but as human beings, who can contribute back to their families, and communities, and to the nations,” Lee told KRQE News 13.

The project began in 2022 with a series of listening sessions with educators and families from partner schools. That information will be documented and analyzed. The project will then use a research method known as “Photovoice,” to allow participants to express their ideas and perspectives on language learning and wellbeing through photos.

To further the connection and relationship between researchers and participants, the research team also plans to develop a Diné song that they will sing during their interactions with community participants.

“So when a song is sung, it provides healing, it provides a celebration of life, it provides protection,” said Chenoah bah Stillwell-Jensen, cultural care provider at First Nations Community Health Source and a member of the research team. “There is this incredible memory, cultural memory, that’s revitalized. When the song is sung, it’s easy to remember, and the songs are sung to also bring cultures together.”

Another goal of the study is to take what the researchers learned and share it with partner sites to possibly help with teaching language, including Diné language, in schools. “I think one thing we hope from this is that more people will, or children specifically, will want their children to speak their language or learn their language themselves regardless of their age,” said Tamera Yazzie, program coordinator in Linguistics and member of the UNM research team.

The UNM research team consists of Lee, Yazzie, Melvatha Chee, assistant professor of Linguistics and director of the Navajo Language Program, and Wendy Greyeyes, associate professor of Native American Studies.

Members of the team outside of UNM include Stillwell-Jensen; James McKenzie, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona; and Miltina Chee, a child development specialist. Other partners involve the educational sites of a local Diné language nest and a trilingual elementary school with a Diné language program.

The individuals working on the study are all Diné, “and that’s kind of a rare thing,” Lee said. “There’s been a long, often negative history of research in indigenous communities. And so this is one way for us to sort of address that and often counter, maybe, and have a representation from our own people, for our own people.”

So far, the feedback the research team has received about the study from participants has been good, according to McKenzie. “They gave us a lot of encouragement, and they wanted to continue with us doing this work,” McKenzie said.

Lee also added that a lot of the families and educators who participated in the study were happy to know that their sentiments were taken into consideration so that “people can know more about the impacts of learning our language,” Lee said.