Teaching Indigenous Languages
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Chapter 2 of Teaching
Indigenous Languages edited by Jon Reyhner
(pp. 10-21). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Copyright 1997
by Northern Arizona University.
A Tribal Approach to Language and Literacy Development in a Trilingual Setting
Octaviana V. Trujillo
This paper is an overview of the efforts of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to develop a tribal response to the language development needs of its people. It examines the tribe's effort to assume responsibility for coordinating and directing all programs and activities initiated by its own, as well as other public education agencies, to meet the long range needs and interests of the tribal community. It also examines the significance of language usage both on educational attainment as well as in the larger cultural milieu in which tribal members live. A historical perspective traces the efforts to date to better understand the conceptual underpinnings of current programs and the tribal planning underway to expand that effort. This case study approach conveys the story of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in order to focus on universal variables and constraints that are relevant to the language development of all indigenous groups.The language competency of the members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe encompasses, to varying degrees, the Yaqui language as well as community dialects of both Spanish and English. Even though this unique trilingual linguistic pattern has been functional for their survival needs, it has also served as a barrier to educational achievement where competency in the standard forms of Spanish and English is required. Because of the considerable discontinuities that exist between the sphere of public educational institutions and those of the Yaqui community, many Yaquis have not acquired functional literacy in any of their three languages.
In responding to the broader educational and social needs of its members, the Tribe has focused its educational program development efforts on reviving and encouraging the use of the Yaqui language in order to promote a language and cultural renaissance, encompassing both the desire to reassert the role of the language in the culture, as well as to provide a vehicle for enhancing the attainment of improved English and Spanish skills.
Many indigenous groups have had to undergo pronounced bilingual and bicultural adaptation, particularly in the urban setting, as a result of their proximity to a dominant European American cultural presence. Yaqui communities have a third, Hispanic, cultural variable, making them trilingual and tricultural in character.
To understand the underpinnings of Pascua Yaqui's unique cultural setting, it is imperative to briefly retrace the historical antecedents in the southern region of the state of Sonora, Mexico, the traditional homeland of the Yaqui. The phenomenon of the bilingual and bicultural adaptation of Native Americans is much older than the history of Native American/non-indigenous American contact. Many Yaquis, as was the case with other indigenous groups, knew the languages of some of their neighbors. This was important to the conduct of trade and regional stability. Contact with Europeans, on the other hand, has occupied a relatively short period in the Native American social experience. This latter contact has been unique in Native American history in that it has spawned the profound cultural and linguistic diversity that characterizes the contemporary social landscape.
The first non-indigenous influence in North America was a result of the establishment of the Spanish colony in the Valley of Mexico, from whom the Yaqui steadfastly maintained an almost singular isolation in comparison with other tribes in the region. Yet significant inroads were eventually made into traditional Yaqui culture as a result of their adoption and adaptation of Catholicism, introduced to them by the Spanish Jesuit missionaries during their long journeys north into the present day western United States (Rivas, 1968). This also provided the common thread that culturally, if not socially, would eventually link them to the growing racially and culturally mixed Mexican population neighboring their homelands.
The ensuing cultural adaptation was also reflected in the Yaqui language. Spanish words were added to the Yaqui lexicon to accommodate cultural innovations (Spicer, 1943). Even the morphology and syntax were influenced by Spanish. Yaqui speakers readily incorporated Spanish words as well as grammatical structure to accommodate new things and concepts introduced by the missionaries, rather than coin new Yaqui terminology or even translate the Spanish words into Yaqui. This phenomenon is a characteristic of the early intercultural period, before the Yaqui began to feel cultural coercion and oppression (Dozier, 1956).
Gradually some Yaquis became literate both in Spanish and Yaqui. Yaqui leaders wrote to their Mexican contemporaries in Spanish and to their literate Yaqui friends who had relocated to other parts of Sonora in Yaqui. As church ceremonies were written in Spanish and Yaqui for all to use, a Yaqui written record appeared (Barber, 1973). The majority of Yaqui were literate, although with little formal schooling, and many spoke several languages (Spicer, 1980). In their own minds, the Yaquis considered themselves more civilized than Mexicans and other indigenous groups and equal, except in technical skills, to European Americans.
The Yaqui experience in the United States
Although Yaquis began to cross the border into the United States as early as 1887, they were not strangers to the northern region. Yaqui oral history tells of their presence in the area of what is today the southern U.S. from time immemorial (Senate, 1994). The major migration of the historical era came during the years 1900-1910. By the 1950's, there were approximately 4,000 in Arizona. For the most part, they were escaping deportation by the Mexican government to Yucatan, or seeking employment when conditions in Sonora became extremely difficult. As many Yaquis in Sonora were doing, those coming to Arizona established themselves in barrios at the edges of cities or in work camps, neither assimilating into the dominant society nor returning to their homeland permanently (Spicer, 1961).
The Yaquis were refugees and their earliest settlements bore universal refugee characteristics of inadequate food, shelter, and sanitation. They were intruders who had no legal status. They owned no land and were forced to establish themselves as squatters. During the early years, they were fearful of being identified as Yaquis and being sent back to Sonora, so they operated primarily within their own micro-cosmic cultural enclave as a defense mechanism to the perceived threat of deportation. Because of this, Yaqui identity, language, and religious practices were outwardly suppressed. They had as little contact as possible with government officials so that nearly fifteen years passed before the Yaquis became aware that they had been afforded political asylum and that in the United States religious freedom was upheld regardless of political or social status.
European American and Mexican communities were already well established in Arizona by the time the Yaquis settled there. As in Mexico, they were faced with the cultural diversity that was anything but democratic. While the Mexican majority in Sonora had essentially relegated them to second class status in their homeland, in the United States their social status was diminished further by the Mexican Americans who were, themselves, already enduring that status relative to the "Anglo" population. The trilingual characteristic of the contemporary Arizona Yaqui community is a cross-cultural legacy of the dynamics of their living many decades in proximity to ever increasing numbers of non-indigenous language speaking neighbors flanking both their Mexican and U.S. communities.
Despite considerable success in trilingual and tricultural adaptation, the Yaqui continue to be financially the poorest of any single population in southern Arizona. This is largely attributable to extraordinary low levels of formal educational attainment. Only about two-thirds have completed the eighth grade, less than one-fifth have completed high school or the equivalency, and less than one percent have graduated from an institution of higher education. Economic indicators show that over 60% are unemployed and that of the employed, less than 25% are employed full-time. Based on national standards, approximately 85% of the tribal population live below the poverty level (Yaqui, 1989).
Although it was not uncommon for Yaquis in the traditional homeland to know other languages, Spanish was the first truly foreign language with which they would be compelled to contend in terms of cultural adaptation. The Yaquis historically adapted to the changes in Mexico by learning the cultural "vocabulary" as well as the vernacular of the Mexicans. By the time of the migrations to Arizona, Spanish was widely used by the Yaqui residents in all their dealings, economic and social, with the population of Mexicans and Mexican Americans that surrounded them. But a new cultural vocabulary and vernacular had to be acquired to survive in the Anglo dominant society they found in Arizona.
The trilingual character of Arizona Yaqui society today
Spanish is the dominant language today among the Arizona Yaqui. Its is spoken in the majority of all Yaqui homes, roughly 70% percent of the time on average. Yaqui is spoken approximately 20% of the time on average (usually by older family members) with the remainder consisting of English (usually younger family members) (Culture, 1979). Many Yaquis over age 50 speak at least some Yaqui, although primarily among those of their own generation. Most also speak a regional Spanish dialect, in which they have steadily become dominant.
The population of Arizona Yaquis today is young, almost half of them are in school. Their language abilities are mixed. The children of today typically learn Spanish as their first language, since this is the predominant lingua franca of most Yaqui communities. The trend is, nevertheless, toward an ever greater percentage of children learning English as their first language, although this is often a non-standard English dialect. It is now common for parents to speak to their children in Spanish and have the children respond in English. Only a few adolescents maintain a passive knowledge of spoken Yaqui, but virtually none speak it fluently. An ever increasing number of children speak only English, with perhaps passive receptive knowledge of Spanish.
The particular character of the linguistic competence of Yaquis is unique. They, as most Native Americans, speak a dialect variant of English that bears a strong influence from the native language. Since individuals who are raised in an indigenous or minority community usually learn English from other members of that community, the linguistic patterns of their English dialect continue that influence (Leap, 1977). In the case of the Yaqui, however, there exists another dimension to their linguistic culture, since they have gone through this same process earlier in learning Spanish as a second language. The majority acquired English as dominant Yaqui dialect Spanish speakers. That is, many of the grammatical patterns and items of vocabulary differ in form and meaning from those used in the "standard" form of both English and Spanish (Leap, 1977).
The Yaqui educational experience in Arizona
Yaquis, like most Native Americans, have been impacted by the discontinuity between the school and the community and the implicit institutional "hidden curriculum" predicated on a deficit model of them as learners. This has been generalized to both language and culture. That is to say, that the Yaquis are somehow assumed to be culturally and linguistically lacking. Given that learning occurs in a context of positive interaction, mutual intelligibility, and shared meaning, the Yaquis have been marginalized institutionally by this hidden curriculum. They share this experience with most linguistic and cultural minorities.
The public schools have perpetuated both the social distance and contextual effects that perpetuate inequality. This has been largely owing to the failure of many school district personnel to perceive their own lack of understanding of cultural "literacy" and the implications that has for education (Chilcott, 1987). This scenario has provided the impetus for the Yaqui Tribe's various initiatives to assume leadership and control of programmatic efforts to address the language development needs of its constituency.
For many years no bilingual instruction was provided and no appropriate assessment was used to ascertain the educational needs of the Yaqui children by any of the public school districts serving them. In 1971, the community based Guadalupe Organization (GO) took action to correct the situation of misdiagnosing and mislabeling Guadalupe's non-English proficient students by filing a class action lawsuit against the Tempe Elementary School District. At the time, over 67 percent of the children in special education classes were Yaqui and Mexican, although they constituted only 17 percent of the district student population.
The following year, the district was ordered to develop a desegregation plan as a result of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) citing a 97 percent minority enrollment at the local elementary school in Guadalupe. In response, the Guadalupe Organization opened I'tom Escuela, "Our School" in Yaqui, in a church community center with 15 volunteer teachers and 200 students (Retzlaff, 1982). I'tom Escuela was financed by rummage and bake sales, car washes, contributions from community groups, and by fund-raising campaigns. Its teachers were paid through money received from Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The alternative school prided itself on building on the cultural heritage students brought from home. The instructional program was not oriented to tests or grades, rather it helped students establish positive self-concepts through learning about their own and other cultures. Three languages were taught: English, Spanish, and Yaqui. The curriculum included the unseen components of language that structure the way people view themselves, each other, and the world around them. It also addressed many injustices, the most glaring being the placement of children in classes for the mentally retarded on the basis of intelligence tests administered in English.
After ten years of providing a trilingual/tricultural curriculum for the students of Guadalupe, I'tom Escuela closed its doors owing to financial instability. A primary barrier to their seeking federal funds for continuing this unique school was owing, ironically, to their resistance to busing and boycott of a civil rights desegregation plan.
The 1973 lawsuit against the Tempe Elementary School District by the Guadalupe Organization brought about change in regard to language and student assessment. The Guadalupe Decision was incorporated into Arizona Department of Education policy on assessment, which now states that the primary language of each student must be determined and then the student's proficiency must be tested in that language. As a class action suit, the Guadalupe Decision ensured that all children in the state of Arizona will be assessed in their native language (Trujillo, 1992).
The Tucson Unified School District and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe entered into an agreement to develop and implement the Yaqui/English Bilingual Education Project in 1981 with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs. The goal of the project was to develop curriculum materials incorporating the Yaqui culture and language for grades K-5. To meet this project goal, it was necessary to develop guidelines for the use of cultural information and the development of an orthography for the Yaqui Language. These guidelines were first established by the Parent Advisory Committee to the Title VII Yaqui English Project, and were later reflected in the tribe's language policy.
The adoption of a tribal language policy
In September, 1984, the tribal council officially adopted the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Language Policy. The basis for this policy is contained in the policy declaration stating:
The Yaqui Language is a gift from Itom Achai, the Creator, to our people and, therefore, shall be treated with respect. Our ancient language is the foundation of our cultural and spiritual heritage without which we could not exist in the manner that our Creator intended. Education is the transmission of culture and values, therefore, we declare that Yaqui education shall be the means for the transmission of the Yaqui language and spiritual and cultural heritage. We further declare that all aspects of the educational process shall reflect the beauty of our Yaqui language, culture and values.This policy incorporates statements in reaffirmation of the tribe's commitment to the promotion, protection, preservation, and enhancement of the Yaqui language, culture, and tradition. These statements encompass the tribe's authority to establish policies regarding the status of the Yaqui language, the role of parental and organizational involvement, the recognition of eminent persons and elders, the recognition of the Yaqui language as an integral part of all school curricula, the requirement of tribal approval for all external research and studies, provision for the copyright of publications and reproductions of ceremonial artifacts, the sanctioning of the Pascua Yaqui orthography, guidelines for teacher training, the establishment of the Yaqui Language and Culture Commission, and the provision of funding to support Yaqui language development (Pascua Yaqui Tribe, 1984).
Yaqui attitudes on language development and usage
The possession of multiple operating cultures is the ability to act and behave appropriately in accordance with alternative sets of standards. The ability to demonstrate competence in more than one set of standards or to engage multiple operating cultures constitutes a wider field of shared cultural competence. The Yaquis distinctive identity within their respective communities in the U.S. and Mexico, where they must coexist with "dominant" cultures, has been reinforced as a consequence of both positive and negative factors.
Languages are generally not viewed by the Yaqui community as systems of communicative competence, but rather as vehicles of access to the socioeconomic cultural domains they symbolize. The Yaqui language is perceived more as a repository for culture and heritage in a static sense, not viewed as an equally valid and viable medium for intellectual and contemporary social development. English, however, is imbued with such qualities and thereby becomes the gatekeeper for success in the Euro-American dominated national culture.
A study of Yaqui viewpoints on language and literacy conducted in 1989 found that cultural conflict exists in education and language learning. Cultural conflict in education reflects a dichotomy of cultural survival versus functional survival within the multiple operating cultures. The decline of the Yaqui language in Arizona is expressed by Yaquis in terms of cultural change and adaptation to the dominant culture (Trujillo, 1991). Yet paradoxically, their historical marginalization by the dominant society and its institutions such as the schools, as well as by the Mexican American community, has served to keep that identity strong.
Yaqui students' native language skills in either Yaqui or Spanish are still not being developed in the public schools, and because their primary language skills are not being fully exploited to assist in the acquisition of English, their overall linguistic development is being shortchanged. While language is seen as a critical aspect of cultural pluralism and the study of the languages of developed or exotic societies is widely encouraged, there continues to be a stigmatization associated with indigenous languages or, as in the case of Spanish, with languages that are locally associated primarily with culturally and economically marginalized groups. Spanish study is viewed favorably, on the other hand, for native English speaking European American students who may, for example, seek to participate in an exchange program in Spain. Yet it is viewed quite differently when it is offered for minority students who come from Spanish speaking homes.
Few people will regularly choose to use a stigmatized language without a strong ideological commitment. This has provided a strong impetus for many Yaquis to seek to ensure that their children learn English as a primary language as early as possible. Often this is done even to the detriment of commensurate Spanish and/or Yaqui skills development.
Development and maintenance of language skills demand the use of the language in significant and useful ways as part of normal real life activities, not just in structured language lessons. Full language acquisition necessitates availability of the total range of communicative possibilities by which the learner may selectively recreate the language in a natural order (Chomsky, 1965). This is why dominant languages always prevail while minority languages are continually retreating in their path.
Tribal responses to language development needs
The Yaqui Family Literacy Partnership Program (YFLPP) was funded in 1988 by the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA) of the U.S. Department of Education, to initiate a family literacy program utilizing the rich oral tradition and cultural heritage of Yaqui people in the teaching-learning process. This project represented a partnership of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Education Department, Pima Community College, and the Tucson Unified School District. As such, it united the efforts of these educational agencies in a collaborative effort to create a family milieu literacy program for the Yaqui people. The program focused upon utilization of existing forms of language and literacy to build new dimensions of linguistic competence. The broad range goal of the project was to increase learning outcomes for Yaqui children enrolled in bilingual education programs by increasing the literacy levels of their parents and older, out-of-school siblings.
The initial eight-week classes were initiated at three sites in April. Each class met one evening per week, usually for two hours. Based on the project assessed training needs and interests, the Spring 1989 classes included pre-GED literacy in New Pascua, pre-GED literacy and Yaqui language in Old Pascua, and pre-GED and Spanish Language in Yoem Pueblo (Marana). Instructional topics included history of the Yaqui people, discussion of significant Yaqui cultural themes, comparison between Yaqui lifeways in Arizona and Sonora, comparison between Yaqui and European scientific perspectives, critical reading of newspapers, oral and written reports, group discussions, and language-based work skills.
The program's instructional services were enthusiastically received by those family and community members who availed themselves of the opportunity. Participants and staff alike reported being pleased with the overall classroom accomplishments.
The widely claimed highlight of the project was the First International Yaqui Language and Family Literacy Conference held in July 1989 in Tucson. While this unprecedented event featured a range of unique and timely themes and topics, it was the historic convergence of Arizona and Sonora Yaquis that impressed the greatest number of participants. Many extolled the historic and cultural significance of this important event.
The conference was the symbolic departure point for the Yaqui Family Literacy Partnership Program. It was the Conference that brought YFLPP to the forefront of attention for most tribal members, both those living within and those living outside of communities targeted for project services. Widespread interest was expressed for having this conference activity be institutionalized as a regular annual tribal activity.
In terms of the YFLPP project, the most significant result of the conference was that it represented the point in time when the project changed its perceptual ownership. From that point it was widely felt to be a Yaqui program, belonging to the people who it is intended to serve. The last session of the Conference in particular, the open forum, was the point at which the people began to identify and articulate in their own terms the meaning of the event and what it signified.
Following up closely on that phenomenon and taking advantage of the momentum of the occasion, an in-depth study designed to get at the very core of Yaqui perceptions on language and educational issues was initiated by the author. The findings were the subject of her doctoral dissertation, Yaqui Viewpoints on Language and Literacy (Trujillo, 1991). The study utilized ethnographic interviewing for exploring the perceptual underpinnings of tribal members attitudes that shape their responses to language acquisition, educational attainment, and in the broadest sense, Yaqui cultural development.
The language viewpoint study provided a framework for addressing the tribe's language development desires and needs. One of the outcomes of the study was the determination that any meaningful effort to impact the language development needs of the tribe would have to come through a "whole community" approach. Specifically, a family-centered milieu was identified as the most appropriate method to address the community's needs in light of the unique character of their communicative competence.
With the author's election as the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council Vice-Chairwoman, the responsibility for initiating education projects was delegated to her. One of her first acts was the establishment of a tribal education department to oversee all educational activities in a comprehensive and unified manner.
In 1993, utilizing the personnel of the various programs under the new tribal education department, a comprehensive community survey was developed at the reservation community of New Pascua. This was devised to elicit comprehensive information regarding living patterns, educational attainment levels, language abilities, employment, and various other kinds of data from the entire community.
The results of the community survey have been utilized for refining subsequent project intervention services as well as planning additional programs dealing with language development. Extensive coordination with local tribal and school personnel and agencies was conducted regarding the instruments, the implementation protocols, and the assessment timeline. Approximately two-thirds of the entire reservation community were surveyed, 957 adults and 922 children. The survey showed that over 80% of both adults and children speak English, and, while over 75% of adults speak Spanish, less than half of the children do. Less than 25% of adults and 10% of children speak Yaqui.
Project Kaateme, one of the first new programs undertaken by the new education department, is the Pascua Yaqui Even Start Family Literacy Program, an intergenerational project of the tribal Education Department that addresses the needs of Yaqui parents, their preschool children, and other family members who have not completed school. The goal of the project is to increase learning outcomes for Yaqui children while increasing adult training and employment opportunities through raising the literacy levels of their parents and older, out-of-school siblings.
Project Kaateme incorporates a parent-as-tutor strategy based on a non-deficit family approach. This method emphasizes the strengths of the Yaqui family. The non-deficit perspective helps increase the self-confidence of parents and fosters their participation in school settings. The meaningful participation of parents in the academic progress of their children has a direct relationship to the children's academic achievement. Out-of-school youth also participate in order to achieve increased literacy skills that offer them a new range of possibilities in both the job market and for further education. They also serve as role models for younger children who continue to face great challenges in the school environment.
Educational activities are provided in tribal education facilities on the reservation and are built around culturally relevant themes. Yaqui culture, traditions, and language serve as the medium, context, and subject of learning experiences, carefully designed to foster and stimulate the acquisition of additional linguistic competencies. Family literacy creates a base from which to increase the effectiveness of education for all. The project emphasizes the use of the existing linguistic characteristics of the community as a base for additive competencies, while addressing the concerns of parents that their children acquire the standard American academic form of English in order to enhance their access to a good education.
The program focuses on the utilization of existing forms of language and literacy to build new dimensions of linguistic competence. Commensurate with developing effective learning outcomes for educational and occupational advancement, the project also addresses the need to promote the enhancement of Yaqui cultural knowledge. Yaqui culture is, therefore, the primary content vehicle for training activities for all family members.
Project Kaateme places equal emphasis on two generations and two goals, maximizing the effects of early education for children and literacy instruction for adults. The synergy of reciprocal learning and teaching among family members creates a home environment that supports and enhances learning. The underlying premise that parental involvement in the education process of children leads to academic achievement and increased self-esteem is expanded in this project to include total family involvement. This framework that builds upon family interrelationship to produce positive learning experiences provides benefits not only to the basic family unit but also the community and tribe.
The tribe is now offering Yaqui as a second language classes for adults through the auspices of Pima Community College. The class is taught by one of the Project Kaateme staff members, who is also providing Yaqui as a second language instruction to preschoolers.
Educational opportunities have increased markedly only recently, as a result of revenues generated through the tribe's gaming operation. Benefits are now offered by the tribe to its administrative and casino employees. The casino, which only began operation in 1994, employs more tribal members than all other tribal enterprises combined. The tribe is currently in the process of constructing a new learning center with casino revenues. This will bring together under one roof the early childhood learning programs, represented today by the Head Start and Project Kaateme programs, as well as future integrated language and culture educational projects.
This is the situation Yaqui community leaders confront as they attempt to develop community education programs that address language and culture. Historically, the cultural and linguistic adaptation of the Yaqui has been primarily reactive, in an effort to ensure that they would survive. The focus has now shifted to reflect the awareness that in a democratic multicultural society it is the right of every culture, as it is with every individual, to thrive.
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Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. (1994, January 27). Pascua Yaqui Tribe Extension of Benefits: Hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess., 27 January 1994, 11
Trujillo, Octaviana. (1992). Guadalupe: Conflict and civil rights in a tricultural setting. In Gretchen Bataille (Ed.), Martin Luther King, Living the dream in Arizona. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.
Trujillo, Octaviana. (1991). Yaqui views on language and literacy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University.
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