Teaching Indigenous Languages  

Teaching Indigenous Languages

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This article was published in the September 1, 1999 issue of the Navajo Hopi Observer (Vol. 17, No. 35) and is reproduced here by permission of the Navajo-Hopi Observer.

Indian educator examines cultural invasion

By S.J. Wilson
When she was a young girl, she thought a monster was following her around. Her parents had enrolled her in a boarding school at age 13-and it wasn't long before the BIA school system decided that she was lacking something for successful participation. Lula Stago, who now holds a doctorate degree in education, was sent to the Intermountain Boarding School where it was hoped she could complete a vocational program and learn a skill.

Her monster was born of the system-she was told immediately not to use her language to communicate. "This was extremely difficult for me," Stago said. "The only language I knew to express myself in was Navajo. When I was restricted from speaking Navajo I began to feel awful about myself. I couldn't express myself. I couldn't even communicate about my personal needs. That made me feel ashamed; I felt like I was being viewed as a dummy."

Fortunately, Stago was a natural at education. "My memory was like a photograph," she explained. And thus she graduated from high school and headed out into the world to pursue a career of medicine. While in her first year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, she and other students performed the duties of medical assistants.

"I was assigned to a children's unit, and learned that I couldn't handle cases of severe abuse and pain." But she also learned that she was interested in the welfare of children, so she turned to education.

At some point in her own education, she began to wonder what it was about American Indian children and failure in school. She knew that Native American children were intelligent and adaptable. As she began her studies in education, she came face to face with her monster-and began to understand why Indian kids fail at school.

Her monster was named Alienation. Alienation is the child of cultural invasion-which is born of the underpinning of a culture. Denying a child of his or her language and culture creates a skewed reality which is manifested in behaviors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, both gang and domestic, teen pregnancy, poor self esteem, and dropping out of school.

"In the past, all of these social ailments were seen as the problem," says Stago. But she insists that they are the symptoms of cultural invasion. "One thing we must understand is that Indian people are caught up in the dynamics of forced bondage." Cultural invasion, according to Stago, attacks the well-being of a "conquered" people, undermines their well- being. Robbing people of their language and culture robs them of their ability to feel totally human.

"I learned that when you have brown skin, there is nothing you can do to change that fact. It doesn't matter where you are, where you live, you are always going to be that brown person. You can't erase that, you can only distort it-become dehumanized. That has a lot to do with people becoming disoriented about who they are and that is when people begin to view the world in an inauthentic way."

To produce successful Indian students, Stago teaches parents, political leaders, educators-all who will listen-that kids need their language and culture. From kindergarten through college. "Our kids need an explanation for their world, and only by knowing their own language, their own history, can they find the balance they need. As Navajos, we need to return Navajo words to our kids, words we don't hear much anymore. Words about a work ethic and keeping a mind from becoming overloaded. We don't hear those words anymore, and we need to reintroduce them to our children."

Another important point, according to Stago, is to stop blaming the students and their parents for the failure. "Indian parents have long been pressured and crushed for something that is not of their making." One example is homework. Stago insists that reservation schools can teach everything they need to within the hours the child is there. Stop the homework.

"Teachers can adequately teach that child without giving homework. "

In a survey Stago conducted, parents admitted that they often had no idea how to help their children with the homework. Social problems were another serious impediment to the successful completion of homework.

"Kids and their families are already in a conflicting cultural setting, so how is anything orderly going to happen? The child may have gone home to an empty home, or to a drinking party, parents that are passed out. What if that child has no electricity, or has to prepare a meal for her siblings?"

These situations create an adversarial atmosphere for students, according to Stago. But she offers an alternative. "I believe our drive should be to teach our children 'survival skills' that they can take home. We need to teach them properly to survive. We must train our schools how to relate and properly respond to those kids who may have alcoholic parents, who witness abuse.

"It is ironic-we don't send our men into war without giving them training. Why do we think our kids are in any less danger, or think that we can just cram academics down their throats and that is all they need. "

In her years teaching youth on the reservation, Stago put her theory into action. "As a teacher, I did some things that did not sit too well with my supervisors, I did things that I thought would really help children to learn. But I was also oftentimes admonished for taking a different approach to teaching-I was told I was to follow the scope and direction of the school program, yet I knew it wouldn't work for our children."

As a principal, Stago continued to challenge the system. "I continued to do things I was criticized for. For instance I refused to drop children except where drugs or weapons were concerned." Stago also challenged sending children away to treatment centers, an expensive venture with little return. Removing the child only furthers the process of cultural invasion and creating fragile identity by further distancing him or her from language and culture, Stago believes.

"I have always believe that the Indian people have an extra edge that would help us to learn a second language and culture, and I wasn't seeing it. I also challenged the reasons we were being given about why we, as Indian students, drop out of school. I was seeing the parents blamed, the language and culture [seen] as impediments to the learning ability of the Indian child. I just couldn't accept that, so I decided to look at American Indian history-see what has happened throughout history to see if indeed Indian people have had anything to do with our lack of success especially in education." History helped Stago recognize what cultural invasion has done to distort and cripple the natural ability of the Indian people.

"In a way what we are dealing with now is having an artificial culture. People don't understand the forced bondage and what it has done, causing the Indian people to just adapt to things as they are. It has made them to not think for themselves, it has made them feel powerless, hopeless-a victim. It has weakened what I call authentic values, principals of Indian thinking, the way that they perceive life. And so what we have now is an artificial cultural setting that is in conflict.

Stago has developed a series of training programs designed to counteract the effects of cultural invasion. "First of all, people must be shown what cultural invasion has done to the Indian people," Stago explains. Principals, educators, teachers, parents, students-all need to understand what the root cause of failure is, not just in education, but of all social problems known to man. As long as the people do not understand the effects of cultural invasion, they will continue to behave as they have been before.

And, Stago points out, "When a people has been invaded, imposed upon, conquered, made to conform to something else that they are not, they become oppressors themselves. They tend to oppress their families, their children, their leaders, people that come to help them."

And change begins by bringing Indian languages and culture into the schools. "Language provides control and structure for any society, and when you take that away, then there is nothing on which a meaningful kind of life can be developed. People must begin to see the world from the perspective of the Indian child, in order that education can correspond to their needs. We have to remember that not only kids, but their parents, have been distorted into blaming themselves for failure. Current education models ignore the school's role and responsibility of providing adequate education.

Stago's training also brings educators into a position where they understand where their students are coming from. "When the staff is kept in the dark, then there is no basis on which to carry on a meaningful dialogue about education in that school. How are you going to have a meaningful dialogue without the language to carry it on?

"Principals, educators, the school staff-their intentions are good, they want to do well, they want to help kids. Teachers want to teach effectively," Stago believes. There are techniques that educators can learn to accomplish this goal, techniques that Stago offers in her trainings. "There are techniques that people can learn that will cut 90% of the discipline problems. We can teach techniques that will make their jobs easier."

Stago demands high ethical standards for teachers, yet believes they must be treated professionally and protected. "If you don't provide for the staff, how can you expect the staff to provide for the child?" she asks. School boards and dormitory aides must be taught as they too are responsible for the destiny of the children.

Principals, administrators, teachers, school board members and parents-"all have an obligation to use what's best for kids. This must be the basis for making decisions that affect our kids-not just what is politically correct."

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