Teaching Indigenous Languages  

Teaching Indigenous Languages

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Note: This article was first published in the November/December 2005 issue of the National Association for Bilingual Education's magazine Language Learner on pp. 22-24. Reproduced here by permission. Permission to reprint is hereby given with proper credit to the author and Language Learner as the source of original publication.

Cultural Rights, Language Revival, and Individual Healing

Jon Reyhner,Northern Arizona University

Throughout the history of the colonization of the Americas, the goal of schooling for America's Indigenous peoples was forced assimilation. They were to give up their native culture, speak the language of their conquerors, and become Christian. Yet assimilationist schooling had effects that went well beyond these goals. In 1975, Dillon Platero, the first director of the Navajo Division of Education, described the experience of "Kee," a typical Navajo student:

Kee was sent to boarding school as a child where--as was the practice--he was punished for speaking Navajo. Since he was only allowed to return home during Christmas and summer, he lost contact with his family. Kee withdrew from both the White and Navajo worlds as he grew older because he could not comfortably communicate in either language. He became one of the many thousand Navajos who were non-lingual--a man without a language. By the time he was 16, Kee was an alcoholic, uneducated, and despondent--without identity.

Believing that Kee's story was more the rule than the exception, Platero emphasized the need to use the Navajo language more in teaching Navajo students.

More recently, the first Navajo woman surgeon described the effects of assimilationist schooling on her family in her 1999 autobiography The Scalpel and the Silver Bear:

In their childhoods both my father and my grandmother had been punished for speaking Navajo in school. Navajos were told by white educators that, in order to be successful, they would have to forget their language and culture and adopt American ways. They were warned that if they taught their children to speak Navajo, the children would have a harder time learning in school, and would therefore be at a disadvantage.

A racist attitude existed. Navajo children were told that their culture and lifeways were inferior, and they were made to feel they could never be as good as white people. This pressure to assimilate, along with the physical, social, psychological, and economic destruction of the tribes following the Indian wars of the 1800s combined to bring the Navajo people to their knees.

My father suffered terribly from these events and conditions. He had been a straight-A student and was sent away to one of the best prep schools in the state. He wanted to be like the rich white children who surround him there, but the differences were too apparent.

Dr. Alvord concludes that "two or three generations of our tribe had been taught to feel shame about our culture, and parents had often not taught their children traditional Navajo beliefs--the very thing that would have shown them how to live, the very thing that could keep them strong."

Language Nests

The Maori of New Zealand are another example of an Indigenous group who were forced to learn in a colonial language with poor results. As with other Indigenous peoples that lacked immunity to European diseases, three-fourths of them died in the first decade of European exploration. Still, they still make up about fifteen percent of New Zealand's four million people.

Because Maori children, despite speaking English, were doing poorly in school, a preschool movement was started. Putting children in school at an earlier age, along with the spread of radio, television, and movies, accelerated the rate of Maori language loss. To reverse this trend, in 1982 Maori language activists responded with a movement for Maori immersion preschools, known as Te Kohanga Reo (the language nest). Relying on the fact that many elders still spoke Maori, schools were able to operate entirely in the native language. In addition, smoking was banned, they were to be kept very clean, and parents and preschool teachers made the decisions.

By 1998 there were over 600 of these preschools. Wanting their children's Maori education continued and based on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the British government, activists convinced the New Zealand government to provide first Maori immersion elementary schools. Secondary schools soon followed and finally Maori language university programs, which helped prepare Maori teachers to work in immersion schools.

Native Hawaiians, another Polynesian people, share a similar history with the Maori. Before the late 19th century, when Hawaii was an independent nation, Hawaiian children were taught to read and write in their Hawaiian language in their own schools. But after a coup d'etat overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, American missionaries and businessmen used their newfound power to outlaw the use of the Hawaiian language schools throughout the islands. As a result, by the 1980s, there were few Hawaiian children who could still speak their heritage language in the 1980s. Again, despite speaking only English, these children did not do well in school.

In 1984, observing the success of the Maori, Native Hawaiians started their own language nests (Punano Leo) after parents successfully petitioned the state to change its English-Only law. As in New Zealand, popular support extended the Hawaiian language immersion programs into the public schools. By 1996, there were nine sites serving 175 children; in 2003 there were 12 preschools and 23 public schools with Hawaiian immersion classes.

When I spoke with a parent of a Punano Leo student, he described its curriculum as "a way of life...you have to take it home." It was bringing back the moral values of the culture and helping mend families. Parent involvement includes parents also studying Hawaiian and volunteering to help clean the school for eight hours a week. Their mission statement reads:

The Punana Leo Movement grew out of a dream that there be reestablished throughout Hawai'i the mana of a living Hawaiian language from the depth of our origins. The Punana Leo initiates, provides for and nurtures various Hawaiian Language environments, and we find our strength in our spirituality, love of our language, love of our people, love of our land, and love of knowledge.
The Hawaiian immersion schools graduated their first high school students in 1999 and now have more than 3,000 students in grades K-12. At the University of Hawai'i at Hilo there are now both undergraduate and graduate programs taught in the Hawaiian language.

Healing Possibilities

Northern Cheyenne tribal college president Dr. Richard Littlebear, speaking at an Indigenous language conference in 1997 at Northern Arizona University, described the healing possibilities of revitalizing tribal languages and cultures that is beginning to occur through bilingual education with American Indians and Alaska Natives:

Our youth are apparently looking to urban gangs for those things that will give them a sense of identity, importance, and belongingness. It would be so nice if they would but look to our own tribal characteristics because we already have all the things that our youth are apparently looking for and finding in socially destructive gangs. We have all the characteristics in our tribal structures that will reaffirm the identities of our youth. Gangs have distinctive colors, clothes, music, heroes, symbols, rituals, and "turf"....

We American Indian tribes have these too. We have distinctive colors, clothes, music, heroes, symbols, and rituals, and we need to teach our children about the positive aspects of American Indian life at an early age so they know who they are. Perhaps in this way we can inoculate them against the disease of gangs.

Another characteristic that really makes a gang distinctive is the language they speak. If we could transfer the young people's loyalty back to our own tribes and families, we could restore the frayed social fabric of our reservations. We need to make our children see our languages and cultures as viable and just as valuable as anything they see on television, movies, or videos.

While the treatment of Indigenous people by colonists certainly warrants considerable anger, as Meti historian David T. McNab recalls, "The Elders tell us that it is alright to feel angry about stuff like this [e.g., Massacres of Indians at Sand Creek, Wounded Knee and many other sites] and it is good. However, in the end you must go down to the river, offer a gift of tobacco to the Creator and simply let the anger go.... Otherwise the anger will poison your spirit..."

Note: This column is adapted from Jon Reyhner and Jeanne Eder's American Indian Education: A History (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) and Jon Reyhner's Education and Language Restoration (Chelsea House, 2006).

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