Make your own free website on

Excerpted from Digital Diné manuscript

Frances Vitali

lv horses_icon2


Rug weaving is like technology to me because it’s like engineering stuff, putting stuff together. It’s their own buildings, putting things together. There is balance even in the design of it

(Etta Tso, October 6, 2004).












Communication, Culture and Technology

Carey (1988) asserts that culture is synonymous with communication. “Culture is almost indistinguishable from language” for “language is both a shaper and a reflection of culture and written and oral cultures are the primary means by which it does its work” Weaver maintains (1997, p. 12-13). The ritual view of communication values culture, relationships, the meaning of interactions, and the nuances of how the reality of experience is understood, disseminated and then celebrated (Carey, 1992). In contrast, the transmission view has been historically associated with persuasion, dominance, oppression and control. According to Greer (1982) “a thorough analysis of the environment is a fundamental precursor” (p. 6) to understanding the ways in which people communicate, process and use information within any given community. If communication and culture are viewed “as a continuous symbolic process” (p. 203), as Katz (1982) suggests, then the flow of any cultural process is saturated with change, transformation, and impermanence and is framed within cultural contexts (Farella, 1984). Hakken (1993) establishes that the interrelationships of the new communication technologies must be contextually framed within cultural perspectives. Whatever the “information work” (Dertouzous, 1997, p. 53) performed, it occurs within cultural contexts.

Communication is culturally distinct through the symbolic technologies of language, art, music, dance, movement and gestures as extensions of ourselves (McLuhan, 1964; Gardner, 1983, 1993; Smith, 1990). Influenced by Canadian economic historian Innis, McLuhan (1964) explains using the phrase, “the medium is the message”, (p. 7) that the tendency of any technology, as extensions of ourselves, is to gradually create totally new environments. Culture, as a medium, is a dynamic, adaptive, problem-solving system, which translates forms of knowledge into other modes of knowing through communication technologies (McLuhan, 1964; Capra, 1982).

            McLuhan (1994) refers to spoken language as the first technology, for “each mother tongue teaches its users a way of seeing and feeling the world, and of acting in the world, that is quite unique (p. 114). Considering language a “human technology”, as Bergson suggests (McLuhan, 1964, p. 79-80), then stories are, according to Rietz (1988), “a human invention—a mental model, a schema, an archetype” and all the while, “dynamic, living and changing creations” (p. 164).

            According to the Webster dictionary (1985) the word “technology stems from the root word techne meaning art or craft. Technology refers to the application of the art or craft for “human sustenance and comfort” (p. 1211). Stories are the technology of culture—aural, oral, literary, human expressions and human extensions – cultural artifacts representing a living symbolic system.




Universally, language, picturing and mathematics are three innate symbol systems significant for human survival and productivity. Symbolic systems are culturally constructed systems of meaning, which encode important information within a culture (Gardner, 1993). Vygotsky reasoned that the relationship between speech and thought was the key to the nature of human consciousness (1986, p. 256). Worf (1962) announced that language is “the greatest show man puts on” (p. vi). In honoring both communication technologies of orality and literacy, each perspective serves as a foundation for understanding the new information technologies. The insider’s perspective, representing the tradition of orality, values the origin story as the primary cultural-historical past of Diné; and the outsider’s perspective, representing the tradition of literacy, details the archeological and anthropological research as the ascribed written history of the Southwest (Faris, 1996; Turner, 1981). Just as there remain questions from the archeological and anthropological literary perspective concerning Navajo history, there remains no single definitive version of the creation or origin story. “The idea of multiple versions helps to identify a fundamental characteristic of orality (Personal communication, Paul Zolbrod, March 9, 2000).

The cultural and communication process of Diné involves the two pivotal technologies of orality and literacy. Navajo culture could be considered a culture of secondary orality according to  Ong (1982). Zolbrod (personal communication, October 11, 1997) suggests that Navajo culture retains a “powerful residue of preliteracy”. In contrast to a primarily oral culture where there is no knowledge of writing or print, Navajo culture is mediated through radio, television, video, telephone, and computers, dependent upon print and writing.

Literacy complements orality for there can be no literacy without orality. Using a Navajo analogy: all are born into orality and born for literacy. In Navajo culture one is born into the mother’s clan (nishåîî) but born for the father’s clan (báshíshchíín). Traditionally, the mother-child relationship represents a stronger bond between that of the father-child. However, both dynamics of relational kinship are fundamental to the Navajo system of solidarity (Witherspoon, 1975).

As Ong suggests, the orality of any language is both basic and permanent, for “writing can never dispense with orality. Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality” (1982, p. 7-8). Vygotsky refers to the significance of “cultural means” whereby oral language and communication evolve naturally through social interaction mediated through the acquisition of alphabet and words (Ardila, Roselli & Rosas, 1989, p. 164). Tapahonso (1993) confirms this with a Navajo illustration: “The value of the spoken word is not diminished, even with the influence of television, radio, and video...People are known by their use of language” (xi). Traditionally, Naat’áanii Peace Chiefs (Hózhóójí naat'ááh) and War Chiefs ( Hashkééjí naat'ááh) were voted as leaders based on their traditional and ceremonial knowledge and their oratorical abilities (Navajo Nation Government,  1998).

History provides an eloquent example of the enduring oral memory. In recalling the events and details of the Navajo Long Walk and imprisonment between 1864-1868, Navajo oral tradition remains more accurate and reliable than written accounts documented in the Army annals, citing oral history as “precise”, “vivid”, and “eloquent” (Roberts, 1997, p. 56-57). As a corollary, in 1928 Sandoval, Hastin Tló tsi (Old Man Buffalo Grass) sought out Aileen O’Bryan, (1993) with the request to write his story for future generations to read:

“You look at me and you see only an ugly man, but I am filled with great beauty. I sit as on a mountaintop and I look into the future. I see my people and your people living together. In time to come my people will have forgotten their early way of life unless they learn it from white men’s books. So you must write down all that I will tell you; and you must have it made into a book that coming generations may know this truth” (vii).

In his book, Orality and Literacy (1982), Ong differentiates the qualities and characteristics between oral and literate cultures. Orality and literacy are a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship in that literacy can enhance orality in restoring cultural memory and human consciousness within technologizing cultures (Ong, 1982). Text documents have the ability to extend orality by proxy, that is “delegating the task of speaking for us”, “on our behalf and in our absence” (Levy, 2001, p. 26). Levy (2001) provides a concise explanation: speaking orally is evanescent while speaking through writing is fixed and static. Yet both modes of communication are in relational balance with the other. A description of Luci Tapahonso’s  writing style further elucidates this point:

“Stylistically, her poetry is characterized by short line length, the incorporation of dialogue in both Navajo and English, and a reliance on the meter of traditional chants and songs. Her images are a vibrant cross of a spirituality alive landscape and a people traveling between an ancient worldview and the buzzing, high-technology angst of twenty-first century America” (Dunaway and Spurgeon, 1995, p. 203).

The matrix in Table 1 below provides a framework of comparison based on Ong’s (1982) work. This very general delineation respects different knowledge perspectives of orality and literacy.


Matrix of Orality & Literacy


Navajo Culture


Non-Navajo Culture

orality is universal

literacy is a recent technology

secondary orality has mediated technologies

text based (chirographic and typographic)

learn by imprinting

learn by studying

knowledge exists within person

knowledge exists within books

situational or contextual thinking centered in human action

abstract thinking centered around impersonal labeling, itemizing, categorizing

oral narrativity organizational structures (mnemonic style, ritual formula, repetition)

literal narrativity organizational structures (linear, logical, sequential, abstract)

sound incorporates (unifying, holistic, harmonizing tendencies)

writing & printing isolates (separate, independent, discrete)

knowledge and thinking referential to human activity

knowledge devoid of human action or content


Analytic tendency to take meaning from by the separation of the whole into parts; concerned with interrelationships


Synthetic tendency to give meaning to by the combination of separate elements to form a coherent whole

Table 1. Matrix of Orality & Literacy (Adapted from Ong, 1982)


Larry W. Emerson (Rubel, 2004), a member of the newly expanded Indian Education Advisory Council, questions the emphasis placed on the high stakes standardized testing as required in the No Child Left Behind legislation by commenting: “The question in testing is always whose language, whose culture, and whose history is being tested. Our job is finding harmony and balance.” In the words of Navajo educator and author Ruth Roessel (2002):

We are asking Navajo students to run a half-mile race when other off reservation students are asked to run a 100-yard dash. The factors of  isolation, culture and language, lack of parental support and so forth all contribute to the problems Navajo students currently face. Also, it is important to recognize that the standardized tests that are used to measure school achievements are prejudiced and invalid! The standardized instruments (Stanford 9, CTBS, etc.) used to measure whether a school is performing adequately under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act do [not] properly and fairly measure the achievement of Navajo Students. It is important to recognize that these standardized instruments are culturally unfair and do not measure the true potential of Navajo students. The solution to this is for the Navajo Nation to develop their own instruments which will measure the academic achievement of Navajo student[s]. The Navajo tribe is large enough to make such an instrument feasible and certainly desirable. As long as Navajo students have to meet the standardized instruments such as the Stanford 9 and CTBS and other standardized instruments the Navajo students will do poorly (p. 15).

Anthropologist David Beers who has worked extensively with the Navajo Head Start Program refers to the efficacy of standardized testing as “intellectually bankrupt.” Beers further notes that if we taught our babies to speak the way we try to teach them how to read and write, we would have a nation of non-speakers (Personal Communication, 29 April 2004).

            Acknowledging Navajo learning styles and cultural contexts, the Arizona and New Mexico State Departments of Education in conjunction with each state’s learning institutions are endorsing Diné Cultural Content Standards for Students (T'áá Shá Bik'ehgo Diné Bi Na'nitin

dóó Íhoo'aah, 2000). Remaining true to Diné traditional philosophy and learning styles of students, family and community, traditional Navajo ways of knowing are the foundation of the content standards: nitsákees (planning and conceptualizing), nahatá(planning, investigating, inquiring), iiná(applied learning, producing, performing) and sihasin (becoming experienced, mastery level, confident to adapt)  (T'áá Shá Bik'ehgo  Diné Bi Na'nitin dóó Íhoo'aah, 2000,

 p. vi).


Language is an important symbolic and cultural tool in the cognitive enterprise. The cultural-linguistic system has a propensity of shaping the world-view or schema within the system in which one lives, thereby establishing certain ways of thinking, perceiving and reacting to the world (Young, 1967). The acquisition of literacy skills represents only one way of knowing. Gardner refers to two levels of thinking and knowing: first–order and second order symbol systems. Stories, music, drawing and basic scientific principles situate the learning of first-order symbol systems by observing, listening and imprinting, which are natural and practical. In literate cultures, second-order symbols are acquired through invented or notational system of writing literacy.  Admittedly, challenges exist when mastery of second-order symbol systems clash with first-order knowledge or ways of knowing. In their research on illiteracy, Ardila, Roselle and Rosas (1989) explains “skills that are adaptive in one environment may not be adaptive in another…Specific skills regarded as marks of intelligence in one cultural group may not always transfer well to other cultures” (p. 148). The process of acquiring literacy skills alters our cognitive abilities resulting in a cerebral dominance of our left lobe (linear, sequential) over our holistic, aesthetic right lobe (Ardila, Roselle and Rosas, 1989; Shlain, 1998). Granted with the irreversible effects of literacy, there is no turning back. However, an appreciation for both orality and literacy will help regain a balance and cerebral harmony. According to Shlain, 1998) alternatives to processing information brought about by the new communication technologies may help “bring our two hemispheres into greater equilibrium and allow both individuals and cultures to become more balanced” (p. 429).

Similar to the Orality & Literacy Matrix in Table 1, the human brain is bi-lobed with each hemisphere functioning in opposite yet complementary ways (Shlain, 1998). (**Footnote) Shlain continues that the left hemisphere primarily processes linearity, sequence, abstraction, language, logic, reductionism, analysis and math computation; and the right hemisphere primarily processes holism, nonverbal cues, spontaneity, emotion, aesthetics, images and music. Speech involves the cooperation of both right and left hemispheres and when the written word (reading and writing) began to dominate the oral word (speech and orality), so too, did the left hemisphere begin to upset the bicameral balance (Shlain, 1998).

Prior to the technological development of the printing press in the fifteenth century, language was transferred and communicated in an aural/oral tradition with hearing and sight as the dominant senses. With the radical invention of the printing press, the dominant sensorial mode then shifted to that of sight – the printed word. Print was used to transcribe sound into abstract and visual symbols. The book, as the extension of the eye, changed the balance of the other collective senses and thereby changed forever the perception of the world (McLuhan, 1967; Stearn, 1967; Shlain, 1998).

The significance and impact of the book is comparable to the invention of the wheel. Text is taking on greater permutations within the technological arena. With the new communication technologies of web pages, hypertext, instant messaging, the text is becoming more fluid and less static as it once was. The world wide web environment is transcending logos-the word, to logos-the icon seen on the page as well as on the computer screen (Burke, 2001). As Homo faber - human beings as technologists - Levy (2001) concludes “writing is essentially the marrying of this ability to fix or preserve with the ability to symbolize or represent (p. 20). The qualities of text and orality are coalescing to become a distinct communication technology. Renee Hobbs (1997) reminds us that “changes in communication technologies over the past 100 years have created a cultural environment that has extended and reshaped the role of language and the written word” (p.7). Therefore, written and oral language now coexist in relationship to other forms of expression including images, sound, music, digital and electronic forms of communication (Hobbs, 1997; Burke, 2001; Levy, 2001). Reading of texts now includes websites and hypertexts fused with sound, animation, images and/or video. These digital images speak in similar, yet distinct ways. Roger Wyatt (personal communication, April 18, 1999) suggests chatlines are merging certain characteristics with orality, referring to it as text modified by conversation, and pondering if it will become conversation modified by text.


**[Footnote:  Shlain’s treatise explains right and left hemispheres as female and male counterparts acting in unison. He historically parallels the change in the image of females throughout numerous cultures with the introduction of literacy.]