Teaching Indigenous

Teaching Indigenous Languages

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Introduction, Teaching Indigenous Languages edited by Jon Reyhner (pp. v-xii). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Copyright 1997 by Northern Arizona University.


Teaching Indigenous Languages contains a selection of papers presented at the Fourth Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium "Sharing Effective Language Renewal Practices" held at Northern Arizona University (NAU) on May 1, 2, and 3, 1997. This conference brought together nearly three hundred indigenous language experts, teachers, and community activists to share information on how indigenous languages can best be taught at home and at school. The goals of the fourth symposium were to:

1. To bring together American Indian language educators and activists to share ideas and experiences on how to effectively teach American Indian languages in and out of the classroom.
2. To provide a forum for the exchange of scholarly research on teaching American Indian languages.
3.To disseminate though a monograph recent research and thinking on best practices to promote, preserve, and protect American Indian languages.
There is a pressing need for sharing successful practices since despite the passage of tribal language policies and the 1990 Native American Languages Act, fewer and fewer children are speaking American Indian languages. While the legal right to maintain tribal languages has been obtained, the effective right still has yet to be achieved. More needs to be done to disseminate effective native language teaching methods and materials. For example, Dr. Richard Littlebear, participant in all four symposia, noted that the ability to speak an Indian language is often incorrectly seen as all that is needed to teach the language effectively in schools.

The first symposium held in November 1994 at NAU featured some the leading figures in the field of minority language preservation. The second symposium held in May 1995 at NAU also included many tribal educators from throughout Arizona. The third symposium was held in Anchorage, Alaska, in February 1996 and brought together mostly Alaskan Native educators. The proceedings of the first two symposia were collected and edited by Dr. Gina Cantoni and published in 1996 under the title Stabilizing Indigenous Languages.

The importance of maintaining and renewing indigenous languages

I have written on this subject of maintaining and renewing indigenous languages before (see e.g., Reyhner, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1996; Reyhner & Tennant, 1995), but the recent work of Dr. Evangline Parsons Yazzie and Dr. Richard Littlebear, who both spoke at the fourth symposium, has crystallized for me the centrality of this effort for the survival of indigenous peoples. For her doctoral dissertation, Parsons Yazzie (1995) interviewed Navajo elders about their language. Their responses included the following:

Truly, it is through our language that safety is reached
-- J. Manybeads (p. 2)

Older people who speak only Navajo are alone . . .
-- E. Manybeads (p. 4)

When learning Navajo, children are just learning nouns without verbs or without the whole sentence, because of it children don't think too deep, their minds cannot grasp difficult concepts Culture can only be taught in Navajo; without language, knowledge cannot be transmitted.
-- E. Guy (p. 2)

Another informant said,
You are asking questions about the reasons that we are moving out of our language, I know the reason. The television is robbing our children of language

It is not only at school that there are teachings, teachings are around us and from us there are also teachings. Our children should not sit around the television. Those who are mothers and fathers should have held their children close to themselves and taught them well, then our grandchildren would have picked up our language. (p. 135)

Parsons Yazzie found in her research that, "Elder Navajos want to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation. Originally, this was the older people's responsibility. Today the younger generation does not know the language and is unable to accept the words of wisdom" (1995, p. 1). She continues, "The use of the native tongue is like therapy, specific native words express love and caring Knowing the language presents one with a strong self-identity, a culture with which to identify, and a sense of wellness" (1995, p. 3).

Dr. Littlebear (1994) quotes Northern Cheyenne elders expressing similar thoughts:

It's scary the way we're losing our Cheyenne language.

Cheyenne language is us; it is who we are; we talk it, we live it. We are it and it is us.

How much does the Cheyenne language weigh? How much does the Cheyenne language cost? How much room does the Cheyenne language occupy? How does the Cheyenne language feel, taste, or smell? What does it look like? If the Cheyenne language can be put into those quantifiable terms, then the more prevalent white society may understand the total impact of what it means to be losing the Cheyenne language. But we will never be able to weigh the Cheyenne language.

Cheyennes who are coming toward us are being denied by us the right to acquire that central aspect of what it means to be Cheyenne because we are not teaching them to talk Cheyenne. When they reach us, when they are born, they are going to be relegated to being mere husks, empty shells. They are going to look Cheyenne, have Cheyenne parents but they won't have the language which is going to make them truly Cheyenne.

The voices of these Navajo and Northern Cheyenne elders add to the sense of urgency surrounding the issue of maintaining and renewing native languages. The purpose of this collection of 25 papers is to disseminate information about what is being done so that we can all be more knowledgable in our efforts to keep indigenous languages and cultures alive and well. The papers are divided into six categories: tribal and school roles, teaching students, teacher education, curriculum and materials development, language attitudes and promotion, and a summing up of thoughts about indigenous language stabilization. A brief summary of each paper is given below by category.

Tribal and school roles

The first two papers describe some of the roles that schools and tribes can play in promoting the use of indigenous languages. In "Keeping Minority Languages Alive: The School's Responsibility," NAU regents professor Gina Cantoni discusses the need for systematic and school-wide support of the use of indigenous languages among those who learn them at home and of appropriate instruction in the same languages for those who do not. It focuses on the relationship of indigenous language curriculum with the entire school's official and hidden curricula. In "A Tribal Approach to Language and Literacy Development," Arizona State University Center for Indian Education Director Octaviana V. Trujillo gives an overview of the efforts of her Pascua Yaqui Tribe to develop a tribal response to the language development needs of its people. She 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 achievement as well as in the larger cultural milieu in which tribal members live. A historical perspective traces the efforts to better understand the conceptual underpinnings of current programs and the tribal planning underway to expand those efforts. Her 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.

Teaching students

The next group of papers describe various efforts to teach indigenous languages. The first paper, "Going Beyond Words: The Arapaho Immersion Program" by Steve Greymorning of the University of Montana describes the Arapaho language immersion program on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. He examines the growth and development of the Arapaho language immersion program and discusses the language revitalization strategies and levels of success that the Arapaho Language Lodge staff have achieved as they have worked to establish a new generation of Arapaho speaking children.

Veronica Carpenter's "Teaching Children to 'Unlearn' the Sounds of English" discusses the incorporation of linguistics into an American Indian language program. Rather than focusing on teaching any particular indigenous language or dialect, she concentrates on teaching children and adults to recognize how the sounds of the English language interfere with learning the correct pronunciation of tribal languages.

Alice Taff's "Learning Ancestral Languages by Telephone" is a progress report on a group of adults who have been connecting by phone to learn to speak Deg Xinag, the language of the Deg Hit'an (Ingalik Athabaskan). A one-credit distance delivery class was organized because the number of Deg Xinag speakers, all elders, is less than twenty and the learners, young adults, are too dispersed to get together face-to-face.

In "Coyote as Reading Teacher: Oral Tradition in the Classroom," Armando Heredia and Norbert Francis describe how legends, myths, folk tales, and stories have long been an important aspect of the history and culture of indigenous people and can be used as vehicles to teach historical events, ethics, and values to the young and old.

"Revernacularizing Classical Náhuatl Through Danza (Dance) Azteca-Chichimeca" relates how traditional Danza Azteca-Chichimeca can be used for the intergenerational re-vernacularization of an indigenous language. The efforts of several Danza groups in Los Angeles, California, to bring back Classical Náhuatl into daily use are described.

In "The KinderApache Song and Dance Project," Trevor Shanklin, Carla Paciotto, and Greg Prater report how using Apache song and dance in a kindergarten classroom helped students gain knowledge of and pride in their culture and begin to sing spontaneously the songs they were taught. In addition, the project reinforced the image of the school as a focal point of the community.

Teacher education

The first paper in this third section describes the American Indian Language Development Institute and the second paper describes the professional training needed by indigenous language teachers. In considering what can be done to reverse language shift, many look to schools as primary resources. But school-based language renewal programs have been criticized for transferring responsibility for mother tongue transmission away from its necessary domainthe family. In "School-Community-University Collaborations: The American Indian Language Development Institute [AILDI]" Teresa McCarty, Akira Yamamoto, Lucille Watahomigie, and Ofelia Zepeda present one model for connecting school, community, and university resources to strengthen indigenous languages. AILDI has raised consciousness about the linguistic and cultural stakes at risk, facilitated the development of indigenous literatures and a cadre of native-speaking teachers, and influenced federal policy through a grassroots network of indigenous language advocates. The authors look at the program's development, provide recommendations for developing similar institutes, and suggest specific strategies for strengthening indigenous languages in the contexts of community, home, and school. AILDI is currently held every summer at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

A profession has a defined area of competence, an organized and important body of knowledge, identification as a career field, controlled access for competent individuals, principles and practices supported by research, professionals involved in academic programs, a program of continuing education, and graduates who exercise independent judgment. Joyce A. Silverthorne's paper "Language Preservation and Human Resources Development" takes each of these areas in turn and examines them for indigenous languages teachers with the view of documenting that they are in a profession worthy of recognition and certification by states and tribes.

Curriculum and materials development

The first two papers in the fourth section describe the development of an Apache language textbook. The first paper by Willem de Reuse describes the experience from a linguist's point of view while the second paper by Bernadette Adley-SantaMaria reflects on the same effort from the Apache speaker's point of view. De Reuse's paper "Issues in Language Textbook Development: The Case of Western Apache" describes two experimental language learning textbooks developed in collaboration with Apache speaking scholars from the San Carlos and White Mountain reservations. One was written in the grammar-translation tradition and modeled after Wilson's Conversational Navajo Workbook and Zepeda's Papago Grammar. The other text was a guide to teaching Apache with the Total Physical Response (TPR) method. Finally, de Reuse calls for a dialogue between linguists and native experts to decide how much linguistic terminology can be handled in each particular curriculum.

Adley-SantaMaria's "White Mountain Apache Language: Issues in Language Shift, Textbook Development, and Native Speaker-University Collaboration" is an overview of topics covered during two presentations at the Fourth Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium from the perspective of a native speaker of Apache. She describes her master's thesis on White Mountain Apache language shift, including her recommendations for further research studies on the White Mountain Apache language and comments on her work with de Reuse on an Apache language textbook.

"Science Explorers Translation Project" by Dolores Jacobs describes a pilot project of Los Alamos National Laboratory to translate science education curriculum developed by Argonne National Laboratory into Navajo. In "Incorporating Technology into a Hawaiian Language Curriculum," Makalapua Ka'awa and Emily Hawkins describes Hawaiian language courses developed at the University of Hawaii at Manoa that incorporate computer technology in the teaching of Hawaiian. The last contribution to this section titled "It Really Works: Cultural Communication Proficiency," edited by Ruth Bennett, is an example of an actual indigenous language teaching guide.

Language attitudes and promotion

The fifth section contains five papers centered around peoples attitudes towards indigenous languages. The first paper "Marketing the Maori Language" is by Rangi Nicholson from the Ngai Tahu and Ngati Raukawa tribes in New Zealand. He describes the need to "market" indigenous languages so that they can hold their own against English. He relates how despite the fact that the New Zealand Government currently spends millions of dollars to teach Maori in preschool language nests, Maori total immersion primary schools, and elsewhere, its language policies are not likely to succeed because it has failed to promoted Maori among Maori and non-Maori to the extent that the language has a sufficiently good image. The results of a market research study and the promotion of the 1995 Maori Language Year indicate that the passive tolerance of the Maori language by New Zealanders in contemporary New Zealand society will allow a more active and explicit promotion of Maori.

"Tuning in to Navajo: The Role of Radio in Native Language Maintenance" by Leighton C. Peterson discusses the realities of radio in indigenous language maintenance with a case study of KTNN, a Navajo language radio station. The relationship between audience, language, and programming is analyzed, and more effective uses of radio are suggested.

In "The Wordpath Show" Alice Anderton describes the efforts of the nonprofit Intertribal Wordpath Society to promote the teaching, status, awareness, and use of Oklahoma Indian languages. The Society produces Wordpath, a weekly 30 minute public access television show about Oklahoma Indian languages and the people who are teaching and preserving them.

"The Echota Cherokee Language: Current Use and Opinions About Revival" by Stacye Hathorn describes the efforts of the Echota Cherokee Tribe and Auburn University to establish a database on tribal language resources and attitudes. A survey was designed to gather information on Native American language knowledge, language attitudes, and potential language use in order to lay the groundwork for the language revitalization efforts. The ultimate goal of Echota leaders is to offer instruction in the Cherokee language through the Alabama public school system. In "An Initial Exploration of the Navajo Nation's Language and Culture Initiative," Ann Batchelder and Sherry Markel describe the results of a survey of attitudes about the implementation of the Navajo Tribe's mandate to teach Navajo language and culture in all schools in the Navajo Nation. The survey indicated there was widespread support for teaching Navajo language and culture in schools and that they should be infused throughout the curriculum.

Summing up

The last section contains five papers. The first paper by Dawn Stiles, an adult educator for the Cocopah Tribe in Southwestern Arizona, compares Cree, Hualapai, Maori, and Hawaiian indigenous language programs currently in existence and describes common components and problems of implementation in order to help provide guidance for other indigenous groups looking to start their own language revitalization programs. Stiles concludes that successful programs need to link language and culture, need written teaching materials, and need community support and parental involvement and that successful programs can fight gang activity, alcohol and drug abuse, and a high dropout rates in indigenous communities.

Scott Palmer in "Language of Work: The Critical Link Between Economic Change and Language Shift" theorizes that there has been a widespread change in the language of work and that this quite possibly is a common cause of much of the indigenous language shift that is becoming increasingly noticeable in the Twentieth Century. This language-of-work hypothesis is summarized as a causal chain leading from a shift in the structure of work to a shift in language of the home. Palmer concludes that communities in which parents train their children for life in an indigenous language dominated work force are less likely to experience language shift in the home.

Robert St. Clair in "The Invisible Doors Between Cultures" discusses the concept of cultural awareness within the context of three recent cultural changes that have taken place since the turn of the century in America: the construction of the consumer culture, the urbanization of America, and the marketing of America. Those who are not aware of these changes risk the chance of becoming overwhelmed by them, and for them, the doors between their culture and the business cultures of America remain invisible. However, awareness on the part of indigenous peoples of the surrounding dominant cultures and these "doors" can help them insulate themselves from linguistic and cultural loss.

Barbara Burnaby's "Personal Thoughts on Indigenous Language Stabilization" describes the author's personal, intuitive reflections on the preservation and stabilization of indigenous languages in North America based on her extensive experience with Canadian First Nations' language maintenance and renewal efforts. She explores the complications that conflicting goals and agendas bring to the development of community control, the recruiting of human resources and motivating community action, and the small size of many indigenous language communities. She argues that we need to develop the right strategies for different size language communities and to pay attention to the amount and variety of language use actually going on in communities. She concludes that local priorities must be respected; local leadership must be fostered; the forces that create negativity must be met with healing; and recent accomplishments must be appreciated.

Finally, in "Stabilizing What? An Ecological Approach to Language Renewal," Mark Fettes develops a speaker-centered view of language as an alternative to the monolithic, decontextualized abstractions favored by modern linguistics. Successful language renewal requires the interweaving of critical literacy in the dominant language with local knowledge and living relationships expressed through the local language. The stabilization of indigenous languages forms part of a broader movement to reestablish societies on a human scale that are in balance with nature.

The papers presented here give a sample of the many different efforts currently being made worldwide to keep the world's indigenous languages alive in the belief that by sharing these experiences language experts, activists, and teachers can develop more effective indigenous language programs for their communities. I want to thank all the presenters and attendees at the Fourth Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium who made the conference a success as well as the staff of the Center for Excellence in Education's Division of Educational Services and NAU's du Bois Conference Center for their help.

Jon Reyhner
Northern Arizona University

Littlebear, Richard (Ve'kesohnestooe). (1994). An ethnographic study of Cheyenne Elders: Contributions to language and cultural survival. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston University.

Parsons Yazzie, Evangeline. (1995). A study of reasons for Navajo language attrition as perceived by Navajo speaking parents. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

Reyhner, J. (1990). A description of the Rock Point Community School bilingual program. In J. Reyhner (Ed.), Effective language education practices and Native language survival (pp. 95-106). Choctaw, OK: Native American Language Issues. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 342 512)

Reyhner, J. (1992). Bilingual education. In J. Reyhner (Ed.), Teaching American Indian students (pp. 59-77). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

Reyhner, J. (1995). American Indian languages and United States language policy. In W. Fase, K. Jaspert, & S. Kroon (Eds.), The state of minority languages: Vol. 5. European studies on multilingualism (pp. 229-248). Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Reyhner, J. (1996). Rationale and needs for stabilizing indigenous languages. In G. Cantoni (Ed.), Stabilizing indigenous languages (pp. 3-15). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University.

Reyhner, J, & Tennant, E. (1995). Maintaining and renewing Native languages. Bilingual Research Journal, 19, 279-304.

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