Rex Lee Jim, MA English ’01, vice president of the Navajo Nation, relaxes in a lawn chair on the grounds of the Bread Loaf campus and recites a poem that he wrote several years ago. Like most of his poetry—he has published two volumes—it is written in Navajo and requires some explanation.
The explanation is much longer than the recitation: the poem consists of only four words. It was written as a meditation on the 250th anniversary of the founding of Princeton University, Jim’s alma mater. It’s about new beginnings, the promise of the future, and the prospect of new discoveries. It’s also about that moment at dawn in the desert when the first streak of white light appears on the horizon, where the earth and the sky seem to touch.
Navajo is hard to translate, Jim says, because words have different meanings in different contexts or when pronounced with different intonation. To understand the language, you must absorb the culture, and to understand the culture, you must speak the language. “Language is who we are,” he explains, leaning forward in his chair, speaking softly and deliberately. “I’m not sure how else we can self-identify if we cannot speak the language.”
Jim is a well-known poet, a Blessingway Singer, for many years an educator in Navajo schools and colleges, and now an international advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples and a member of the advisory board of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. He represented the Navajo Nation at the United Nations and helped draft the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed by the UN General Assembly in 2007. He is dedicated to improving educational opportunities for Navajo students and for sustaining the cultures and languages of indigenous peoples worldwide.
Jim points out that there are an increasing number of Navajo like him who are graduates of prestigious colleges and who have chosen to live in their own culture. “That’s what we want for all Navajo children—to be comfortable and happy in both worlds, to have choices to do whatever they want to do,” he says.
In March 2012, Jim announced that the Navajo Nation would commit $10,000 to begin an important partnership with the Bread Loaf School of English. The goal is to bring Navajo teachers and teachers of Navajo students to study at the Bread Loaf campus at Santa Fe and to support a growing core of Navajo educators, who will become active members of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. During the summer and the academic year, they will collaborate online with other leaders in the Network to address the critical challenges that face their communities and their schools.