Chapter 1, Effective
Language Education Practices and Native Language Survival
(pp. 1-8), edited by Jon Reyhner. Choctaw, OK: Native American Language
Issues. Copyright 1990 by NALI Board of Executors and Jon Reyhner.
Effective Language Education Practices and Native Language Survival
It is difficult for our Native American languages and cultures to survive
and it will get more difficult. One of the reasons for this increasing
difficulty for Native language groups is that we are in the midst of a
cultural transition which has demeaned our languages and cultures. However,
remember that our cultures have proven their ability to survive and adapt
over the past thousands of years when they have undergone other cultural
transitions. Let us not allow this present cultural transition to be any
different. The problem is that others have defined for us how to cope with
this transition and their efforts have only minimally succeeded.
This means we must devise our own strategies to counter the negative
effects of cultural transition. Especially since this cultural transition
is being complicated by alien organizational systems, by high technology,
by alcohol, by drugs, by ambiguous values, by exploding populations, by
erosion of language and culture, and by a shrinking world which brings
new demands that impact daily the remotest villages and reservations. Because
of these complications, this transition is forcing us to realign our cultures
to fit the present educational, economic, political, and social circumstances
in which we native minority language people find ourselves. However, I
believe we can use the white man's education, as we Cheyennes refer to
it, to our advantage.
By manipulating the white man's education we can shape our cultures
to our liking to fit our needs. After all, it is the white man's education
and the way it was perpetrated on us that we have objected to; we have
never objected to learning itself. Manipulating the white man's education
is a challenge. Let's not be discouraged. But above all, let us not say
we do not want the white man's education. Though it was imposed on us insensitively,
let's make it our own by giving it our own unique cultural input and making
it relevant to our situations. Our languages and cultures will have a better
chance of surviving if we have the same academic knowledge as the dominant
I am optimistic that we can do this with a more manipulative attitude
toward the white man's education so that we can have the final word in
what shape our cultures assume. Developing this attitude has not
been and will not be easy. Getting educated in the white man's way has
been difficult, especially for Native Americans, for a variety of reasons.
One of them is the lack of positive acknowledgment of our cultures and
Native American students have the highest dropout rates when measured
by any criteria. These dropout rates are rapidly becoming a Native American
academic tradition. It is a tradition that is being forced on us; it is
a tradition with no cultural basis . What causes this dropout rate? In
Alaska about sixty percent of urban Alaskan natives drop out of high school,
partly because of the stress of changing social and cultural factors
(Native, 1989). One of the elements of this "stress of changing social
and cultural factors" is the cultural transition I have referred to.
Because this stress is present, I speculate that something definitely
is wrong with the way we are being educated. What is wrong is that we language
minority Americans have seldom been asked to participate positively in
the education of our own children. This brings us back to our conference
theme, Effective Language Education Practices and Native Language Survival.
It contains two ideas, effective practices and language survival, which,
when acted upon positively, can help lower the dropout rates of our native
language minority students, increase their achievement levels, enhance
individual and cultural self-esteem, and aid in the acquisition of English.
Willig (1985) in her research on bilingual education found that students
who participated in bilingual programs consistently got higher English
language test scores in reading, language skills, mathematics and total
achievement. It is clear that educational methods incorporating the cultural
and linguistic knowledge of students are the most effective methods for
preparing them to compete in the mainstream of society.
What are effective language education practices? The most effective
are those which have been in use for thousands of years; those done by
the family. If we are serious about preserving our languages and cultures,
we must start using our languages daily and everywhere. We must talk to
our children in our own languages and share with them the positive sides
of our past and contemporary cultures.
If they are to survive, we must return the learning and teaching of
our languages and our cultures to where they rightfully belong--in the
families. The parents and elders represent the most effective language
learning and teaching practices that we can utilize to ensure the survival
of our languages and cultures. We must re-instill the value of our languages
and cultures in the family unit and not just hope the schools will do it
Schools have limited resources and opportunities to do what the family
and the tribe can and must do; after all, they have done it for thousands
of years. For instance, a Title VII Bilingual Grant, with its funding based
on three year increments, cannot turn back the language loss that has been
going on for hundreds of years and which has intensified during this century.
Schools can only reinforce the language and cultural learning that goes
on at home.
However, if we are going to turn over to the schools our responsibilities
for teaching our languages and cultures then we must help the schools in
a positive way. We must help identify the most effective language practices.
Parents must encourage and support the schools in their efforts. That is
the price for abdicating a role that has belonged to families for thousands
We have to identify and learn to use effective language practices so
that we can learn both our native languages and English. Admittedly learning
native languages and English are difficult demands. They are made even
more difficult if we do not know how to speak our own languages, if we
do not teach our children how to speak our own native languages, if we
speak only survival level English, and if we do not know how our languages
work linguistically. We must also be able to apply all of this learning
i n the classrooms and in our homes.
What we need are more native teachers, administrators, and better informed
school boards whose agendas are education and students. We must encourage
our native people to become linguists. We must look to the examples of
the Maoris of New Zealand and their preschool language nests. We must look
to using strategies like the summer language camps on the Rocky Boy's and
Wind River reservations. We must look to using methods such as Total Physical
Response and High Intensive Language Training teaching techniques as is
being done on the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations or use the Japanese
models for after school and weekend language classes.
We must prepare ourselves to sustain generations-long, tribal-wide efforts
if we hope to restore our languages and maintain them at conversational
usage levels, presuming that is what we want to do. We must capture and
apply the knowledge about our languages and cultures so that they can survive
the onslaughts of today's media, schools, religions, and misguided tirades
from the "English-only" movement.
Furthermore, the graduates of the year 2000 are already in the first
grade this year and they will be college graduates in 2004. If we are to
educate our future leaders of the 21st Century to value our languages and
cultures, we must start educating them now about our languages and cultures.
If we want our students to reap the advantages of the dominant society
while still retaining our cherished cultural values, we must start educating
them now about these values.
We are going to need leaders with a vision that includes our languages
and cultures, leaders who can articulate that vision to our people, leaders
who can transform that vision to our people, leaders who can transfer that
vision into constructive action for the greater educational, economic,
political, and social advantage for our people. More concisely, we are
going to need leaders who match and exceed the time-tested qualities of
past leaders of our tribes and villages. We can get leaders with those
qualities through an appropriate education since native minority language
people are just as eager to have their children succeed as any middle class
family, but they have seldom had much say in how success comes about. It
is time we were listened to when it comes to educating our own children.
It is time the dominant society lets us help educate our children as we
have done over the past thousands of years.
Let us make, for instance, bilingual education an option or an endorsement
or at least an emphasis in the teacher education programs everywhere. This
will partially acknowledge the profound fact that for many of the students
in this country that there are other powerful, dynamic cultures still contributing
to the development of minority language children.
It is time that multicultural courses be required of all college graduates
and especially for those who are aspiring to be teachers. It is time that
state education standards are made flexible so that we can use native minority
language and cultural expertise without having to abide by state standards
which seek to exclude this native expertise, which have minimally met our
needs, which have failed to acknowledge in actual practice the existence
of our cultures and languages, which have not increased our achievement
levels or our graduation rates, and which have done little or nothing to
eliminate the burgeoning dropout rates except to imply that we fail because
we are language minority people--a curious twist on blaming the victim.
It is time to insist on cultural relevance for those school systems
which serve a majority of language minority students. I believe that including
our languages and cultures on a positive basis in the school systems is
one part of the answer.
I am not asking that standards be lowered merely to accommodate minority
language people. I am sure that the same degree of rigor now in place could
be applied to these flexible standards if they were ever to become realities.
I am also sure that minority language people could meet and better any
standards as long as they saw the relevance these standards have to their
unique situations. I am saying that these flexible standards should be
made relevant to local situations especially where there are language minority
All the forgoing would probably mean a wholesale revamping of state
and provincial educational standards so that they are relevant to schools
on an individual basis. This probably means that revamping will never occur.
However, it would seem that countries should be able to devise flexible
education standards. It would mean more involvement of Native people in
state, provincial, and national political processes. That would mean an
investment of personal time, but the return would be great since we could
then help determine political agendas and representation.
If we are going to constructively deal with the misguided rhetoric of
the ethnocentric "English-only" movement in this country, then native minority
language people are just going to have to get involved in state and national
politics so injustices are not perpetuated. Let's not use what I refer
to as "cultural trauma" as an excuse to relinquish our citizenship rights
in our state, province, or nation or our concern for appropriate educational
For too long what happened to our people in the past centuries and what
continues to happen today has left our cultures traumatized. Granted what
happened to us in the last century was horrible. I do not want to minimize
that. However, many of us tend to use those historical events to blame
the dominant culture for everything that happens to us, even if those events
are of our own making. I think we should use those past events as object
lessons, learn from them and move on. Other contemporary cultures have
experienced similar horrible treatment and have learned from it and moved
on. So let us shake off the paralyzing effects of the cultural trauma of
the previous century and not perpetuate its effects. I believe we can do
that. A culture's longevity is measured by its adaptability and by how
much it can absorb and utilize positive aspects of alien cultures. I believe
most fervently that our native cultures have these characteristics.
The white man's education is definitely one of these positive aspects
when it is made relevant to our own situations as language minority people.
I personally see no conflict in getting educated because I believe that
it is the Cheyenne way to self-actualize, to be the best Cheyenne I can
possibly be with what Ma'heo'o has granted me. I further believe
that our chiefs from the past would have wanted us to get educated because
they would have seen in an appropriate education the means of language
and cultural survival. I have deep respect for our native ceremonies, our
languages, and our cultures because they have meaningful and enduring qualities
from which we can learn. They have had these qualities for thousands of
years. I believe these qualities are what has been missing from the white
man's educational systems. For that reason we should seek to perpetuate
our cultures and languages.
It is time that we look to our own histories, not as they were taught
to us in school, but as we know them through the stories of our parents
and grandparents and there find the inspiration to take charge of our educational,
economic, political, and social destinies. Our histories teem with appropriate
For instance, in Cheyenne history there is an account of the tribe encountering
a marshy area. Curious as to what was on the other side of the marsh, the
tribe sent a group to explore. When they came back they told of flat dry
land on the other side. They marked the way by sticking poles in the water.
By following these poles the Cheyennes were able to cross the marsh and
begin their transition to becoming a tribe of the Great Plains. By using
the poles, the Cheyenne found a better place to live (Weist , 1977).
I see in this account a parallel for education among our own native
people. Symbolically, the poles could represent appropriate education to
show us the way to better our lives and the lives of those who are going
to follow us.
For all my talk of native languages, we must also learn the English
language because it provides access to the dominant culture. If we do not
have access we will not be able to determine our own educational, economic,
political, and social agendas. For this reason, I see our native languages
nurturing our spirits and hearts and the English language as sustenance
for our bodies.
Native Americans' Education Levels Lag Behind Total Population. (1989,
February 23). Education Daily, 6.
Weist, Tom. (1977). A History of the Cheyenne People. Billings,
MT: Montana Council for Indian Education.
Willig, Ann C. (1985). A Meta-Analyses of Selected Studies on the Effectiveness
of Bilingual Education. Review of Educational Research, 55(3), 269-317.
Return to Table