Paul Platero, Edge of the Water Clan, grew up in Canoncito, now Tohajiiliee, about 30 miles west of Albuquerque. Education took him out of his community and brought him back again to teach Navajo. Platero, assistant professor in the UNM linguistics department, was born in the Navajo way.
“I was born in a shade house, my mother clinging to a strap and the medicine man singing, encouraging me out,” he said. His father, who was monolingual Navajo, fought in World War II. “I was four and a half before he saw me,” he said.
Platero attended both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque Indian Schools. He recalls the shavings of lye soap the children were forced to put in their mouths if caught uttering Navajo or other native languages. “First it burns, then it numbs the mouth. Then you were told to spit it out and replace it with a new shaving. By doing it again, they were reinforcing that speaking Navajo was bad. It took its toll,” he said.
Those who were affected by such treatment returned to their native communities. “The psychological conditioning against the use of the language and culture created a group of people who were best able to eliminate the language and culture among their own people,” Platero said.
Platero recalled the Albuquerque Indian School’s track ran along a ditch and under what is now the freeway. “The Navajos gathered in that ditch to talk any chance we got,” he said.
In his sophomore year, he was sent to a church sponsored school in Logan, Utah. “I graduated and then went to BYU for two years. I served a mission for two years with my people. I was a pre-med student, preparing for that profession to repair the people,” he said.
During his mission he developed a new awareness of Navajo language and culture. “It changed the direction of my education to linguistics,” he said. He went back to BYU, gravitating toward linguistics. “Their program wasn’t very good, so I went into anthropology,” he explained.
Platero applied to and was accepted by MIT, even though he lacked one course to graduate from BYU.
“They waived the course and I entered graduate school, studying linguistics under Kenneth Hale, my mentor, professor and friend. Hale worked with tuberculosis patients in Tucson, conducting his own field work and picked up Navajo,” Platero said.
Platero’s master’s thesis focused on relative clauses in Navajo. He returned to New Mexico only to be called back by MIT to get the PhD. “The discipline was growing so fast that they told me I would have to retake all my coursework if I didn’t come back soon to complete the doctoral theses,” he said.
By then, Platero had experience living among non-Navajos. He also had a young family and a wife whose primary language was Navajo. “Out of necessity, we taught our children English because they were the only Navajo children in the school – maybe in any school in Massachusetts,” he said.
Platero took a 30 year break from academia before Sherman Wilcox lured him back, four and a half years ago. “Many of the UNM Navajo students grew up in urban areas, like Albuquerque. They knew of the language and culture of their parents and themselves, but were not fully a part of it,” he said.
He said that he teaches about the culture as well as the language because of their intimate connection. “I teach them simple songs and winter games they can use later in life. You can’t learn a language in isolation,” he said.
Platero said that a group of his students plans to go out to his place. “They want to come out to practice their culture – collect firewood, bring in the sheep, practice butchering the sheep and cooking the pieces in the traditional way,” he said.
“Language can only go so far. To be fluent, you have to bring in other things, especially culture,” he said.
Click here to see the video interview conducted by Carolyn Gonzales and Richard J. Schaefer.
Media contact: Carolyn Gonzales, 277‑5920; e-mail: email@example.com