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Natalie Díaz and the Mojave Language

While Natalie Díaz is known internationally for her poetry, she is also passionate about preserving the Mojave language. Díaz’s work with the Mojave language comes from both a desire to preserve and to better understand it. The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Díaz includes a quote from the poet explaining how language impacts her work. She shared with PBS that, “for me writing is kind of a way for me to explore why I want things and why I’m afraid of things and why I worry about things. And for me, all of those things represent a kind of hunger that comes with being raised in a place like this [Mojave land].” Preserving the language brought Díaz to the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program. She views this work as integral to the future of the Mojave people. Among her contributions is the securing of funding such as the Master Apprentice Program grant from the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival for the project. In addition to funding, trust has been an integral piece of the project. Díaz untangles this concern in a 2013 Tribal College Journal Web Exclusive: “Shame [Díaz explains] was one of the great weapons of the government. We all know the stories of how our elders were beaten if they spoke their language. Our program decided early on never again to make language a source of shame. The door to our class is open to all community members, no matter what their language level. This has led to a rapid growth in learners.”

The theme of navigating language and the individual’s connection to it is integral to Díaz’s artistic process. A 2020 Guardian profile and interview observed that Díaz’s work is the result of “tensions between her three languages: Mojave, Spanish and English.” Preserving the Mojave language is a high priority made even more pressing by the limited number of speakers. As part of preservation efforts, speakers teach in daycare centers and schools, and the language is also taught in high schools so that it is omnipresent in the community. Díaz works closely with Hubert McCord, one of only four tribal elders fluent in the language as of a 2012 PBS News Hour feature entitled “Mojave Tribal Leader Hubert McCord Sings”. The story includes a short video of McCord singing to a group of Mojave teens sharing a moment of both linguistic and physical cultural memory on a boat ride on the Colorado River.

Díaz’s hope for the Mojave language is not to put it away on a shelf after the “dictionary/encyclopedia” including language, songs, and history has been created. Instead, she hopes that it will become an integral piece of everyday life and be used in text messages and social media. According to Díaz, “if we want the language to survive we have to be able to use it everyday, saying what we want to say, so we’ll be creating words now. Sometimes when we do it, our elders look at us like we are nuts, or they’ll say, ‘There’s no word for that,’ and we’ll say, ‘Well we want one, we need one.’” Díaz’s choice of words is particularly poignant considering the definitions of want and need in Mojave that she presents in her 2020 Guardian Interview; “In Mojave, our words for want and need are the same––because why would you want what you don’t need? For me, that’s true desire. Desire isn’t frivolous, it’s what life is.”

Note: Poet Natalie Díaz will be visiting Rutgers!