FARMINGTON, N.M., DEC. 17 -- For all of Joann Tortalita's life, outsiders have called her a Navajo, a name that she rejects as meaning "thief." Now, she and many other members of the Navajo Nation are seeking an official return to the tribe's ancient title: Dine, or The People of the Earth.
"If we change to our rightful name, we will be using the name we have always called ourselves, not the name other people imposed on us," Tortalita, 49, a homemaker from Montezuma Creek, Utah, testified at a tribal hearings this week. "Perhaps it will be a new beginning for our children and our grandchildren."
That is one side of a debate being argued among the 220,000 members of the country's largest group of Native Americans. Proposed by Navajo President Peterson Zah, the name change would restore pride, he said, and "control over our own destiny."
But critics, including, ironically, many Navajo youth, say tribal leaders should concentrate their energies on education and poverty rather than worrying about how the rest of the world addresses the tribe.
"We know who we are," said Jayme Lee Wesley, 17, of Fort Defiance, Ariz., who attends the Navajo Preparatory School here. "We are all 'The People of the Earth.' It doesn't matter if you are Navajo or African American or Cheyenne."
The proposal, which is to be considered by the 88-member governing council in January and could be put to a full tribal vote, comes at the end of a particularly difficult year for the Navajos.
Last spring, a mysterious illness swiftly killed five people living on their vast reservation. For a time, before similar deaths were recorded elsewhere in the country, the disease became known as "the Navajo flu," attracting much negative publicity to the proud and private people.
Poverty and deprivation remain unshakeable. A long-standing land dispute between Navajos and Hopis over 1.5 million acres resulted in a 27-year construction freeze that only ended last year and what have been recognized recently as some of the worst housing conditions in the country.
Fifty-six percent of the Navajo people live below the federal poverty level and nearly half in isolation without running water or electricity. Although the reservation covers an area of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah that is roughly the size of West Virginia, it has only 2,000 miles of paved roads, compared with West Virginia's 18,000.
As early as the 1930s, then-leader Jacob Morgan suggested that the tribe insist on being called by its ancient title, the name still invoked in traditional ceremonies and prayers to the Great Spirit, or God. Pronounced "de-NEH," the title was given to the group by the Great Spirit, according to tribal legend, but the origins of "Navajo" remain unclear.
Some say the name was bestowed by Spanish explorers in the 1600s to denote a sharp knife or blade, a pejorative allusion to warrior-like behavior. Some contend that Navajo means thief. And still others, taking a milder view, say Navajo came from the Pueblo language and means "a piece of ground."
Everyone agrees that the Navajo name did not originate with the Navajo people. Beyond that, however, there is a wide range of opinion about the wisdom of the proposal.
"We are not changing the name, we have always been Dine," Zah says, comparing the situation to other recent examples of rejecting an insulting title or name. An area near Sheep Springs, N.M., had been known as Washington Pass, he said, until the discovery that it honored "a certain white man who killed our people." A Boy Scout troop was named for Kit Carson, the famous frontier scout, until objections about Carson's cruel treatment of Native Americans. Three years ago, the small Papago tribe near Tucson voted to return to its ancient name, Tohono O'Odham. Papago was a outsiders' word that meant "bean."
Whatever the feelings about the name Navajo, there is no doubt that it is firmly entrenched here and that expunging it from businesses, tribal agencies, and everyday life would take a long time.
"What about all those words that have 'Navajo' in front of them?" asked Chris Tsosie, 16, of Flora Vista, a junior at Navajo Prep. "Like Navajo tacos, Navajo rugs and even Navajo Nation. What are we going to do, say we want a Dine taco? That would sound funny."
Although Zah stressed that the focus on the name change takes nothing away "from the larger issues of poverty and social problems," critics have challenged his motives, suggesting that the proposal is a grandstanding, public-relations move as Zah faces reelection next year. Randy Benally, for one, rejected the notion that the proposed switch is separate from other issues facing the tribe.
"What does President Zah want to be remembered for?" asked Benally, 27, an employee with the New Mexico Department of Human Services. "Does he want to be known as the president who changed the name? Or does he want to be known as the president who put running water in every home?"