Rock Point native receives Heard Museum award

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

PHOENIX, October 18, 2012

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F reddie Johnson will be the first Navajo to ever receive the Heard Museum's Spirit of the Heard award.

Johnson, 46 of Rock Point, Ariz., now resides in Phoenix where he works as a cultural specialist for the Phoenix Indian Center.

On October 12, Johnson, who is To'aheedliinii and born for Ashiihi, was awarded for developing a series of language classes, creating seasonal story programs focusing on traditions, and hosted cultural events that foster intergenerational experiences and growth.

"Freddie Johnson is an exemplary choice for the Spirit of the Heard Award," said Lee Peterson, interim president and CEO of the Heard Museum. "He is community focused…has enabled Navajo people living in the Phoenix metro area to not only hold onto but also celebrate their rich cultural heritage."

Examples of his classes include $25 adult Navajo Language courses and free Navajo language and singing courses for children, which were launched in the fall of 2001.

Johnson said he also offers the language courses to non-Navajos but they are charged $125, due to the program being funded by the Navajo Nation.

Johnson's storytelling sessions, which started in 2002, runs during the fall, winter and spring seasons and contracts a Navajo medicine man to come to the center from the Navajo Nation and traditional Navajo tell stories.

"There have been times when people would sit on the floor because there wasn't enough seats in the classroom," said Johnson. "That's when I split the class up."

Johnson also serves as an interpreter for the courts in and around the Phoenix area, as well as hospitals that receive Navajo-speaking patients.

"Because of our Diné bizaad and our way of life this honor has been bestowed upon me," said Johnson. "(I'm) thankful I have learned my language. I went to Rock Point community school, which was bilingual; they had us learn Navajo first and English second."

Johnson said he came to Phoenix in May 2001 because his wife was accepted into Arizona State University's nursing program. Shortly after moving, a position for a Navajo Language teacher was announced at the Indian center.

"Someone else got the position," he said. "But they decided to hire me as a cultural consultant. Later they created the cultural specialist position and I was selected to fill that position."

Johnson said his decision to create the classes was due to him knowing the importance of Navajo culture and traditions to the Navajo people.

"Because of the passion I have for my Navajo language and traditions I do what I do," he said. "My passion is the driving force. I try to share what I know and learned along the way with our Diné people here in Phoenix. They want this too."

Jolana Begay, a language instructor brought on by Johnson, said, "Promoting language and culture to our urban Navajo people that live here us what we do. He has reached out to a lot of Navajo people here. He just provides all that he can and helps in whatever way he can."

Begay has been a resident of Phoenix for the past 10 years and has worked with the program since 2005.

"I'm really proud of him winning this award and it's definitely well deserved," she added. "He's been real humble about it."

Of the award Johnson said, "honestly, I didn't know how big of deal this was and it really hasn't sunk in yet. I'm not sure what to expect. I do feel very honored and at this point, I'm just waiting for the emotions to come. I owe all the honor to my grandparents, my parents and my cultural consultants. I don't see it as an individual award but an award on behalf of our Navajo people."

Johnson was nominated for the award last year, among several other community members. The Heard Museum's board of trustees voted on him becoming the recipient in March.

"He is truly a shining example of what the Spirit of the Heard Award celebrates within Indian Country," added Peterson.

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