Teaching Indigenous Languages  

Teaching Indigenous Languages

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Note: This article was first published in the July/August 2006 issue of the National Association for Bilingual Education's magazine Language Learner on pp. 8-9. 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.

Bilingual Education for Healthy Students, Healthy Communities

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

According to U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth in the January 29, 2006 issue of the Arizona Republic, "Assimilation is the key to any successful immigration policy.... Sadly, Americanization has given way to an insidious multiculturalism." Hispanic immigrants "are force-fed a steady diet of multiculturalism and told by their own community leaders and our own anti-American elites that America is racist, sexist, intolerant and genocidal." These sentiments are echoed in his 2006 book Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror.

However, on March 2, 2006, the Arizona Republic reported that, "The longer Hispanics are here [in the United States], the more likely they are to become obese, to develop diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. And Hispanics born here have even higher rates of those illnesses, a new government report [by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] shows." This new study confirms the 1998 findings issued by the National Research Council that immigrant youth tend to be healthier than their counterparts from nonimmigrant families. That study found that the longer immigrant youth are in the U.S., the poorer their overall physical and psychological health. Furthermore, the more Americanized they became the more likely they were to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, unprotected sex, and delinquency (Hernandez & Charney, 1998).

The above conclusion published by the National Academy Press in regard to the effects of Americanization on immigrants is similar to the thoughts of Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley on the effects of assimilationist education for American Indians. Commenting on last year's high school shooting. He wrote,

We are all terribly saddened by the news about our relatives on their land in Red Lake in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the sad truth is, I believe, these kinds of incidents are evidence of natives losing their cultural and traditional ways that have sustained us as a people for centuries.

Respect for our elders is a teaching shared by all native people. In the olden days we lived by that. When there was a problem, we would ask, "What does Grandpa say? What does Grandma say?

On many native nations, that teaching is still intact, although we see it beginning to fade with incidents like this.

Even on the big Navajo Nation, we, as a people, are not immune to losing sight of our values and ways. Each day we see evidence of the chipping away of Navajo culture, language and traditions by so many outside forces.

Because we are losing our values as a people, it behooves native nations and governments that still have their ceremonies, their traditions and their medicine people, to do all they can to hang onto those precious pieces of culture. That is what will allow us to be true sovereign native nations. This is what will allow our people to stand on our own. The way to deal with problems like this one is contained in our teachings.

At the 2005 annual meeting of the National Indian Education Association, Cecelia Fire Thunder, President of the Oglala Sioux at Pine Ridge, testified, "I speak English well because I spoke Lakota well... Our languages are value based. Everything I need to know is in our language." Language is more than communication, "It's about bringing back our values and good things about how to treat each other" (as quoted in Reyhner, 2006, p. 61). Students of whatever race or culture who are not embedded in their traditional values are only too likely in modern America to pick up a unhealthy lifestyle of consumerism, consumption, competition, comparison, and conformity. As the late Vine Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux) wrote, "A society that cannot remember and honor its past is in peril of losing its soul" (as quoted in Reyhner, 2006, p. 61).

Presidents Shirley and Fire Thunder's views are not new. The Rock Point Community School Board felt in the 1970s "that it was the breakdown of a working knowledge of Navajo kinship that caused much of what they perceived as inappropriate, un-Navajo, behavior; the way back, they felt, was to teach students that system" (Holm & Holm, 1990, p. 178). The Board's answer was to establish a bilingual education program with an extensive Navajo Social Studies component that included the theory of Navajo kinship.

The Rock Point Program has been modified and continued in the Window Rock Public School's Navajo Immersion School. There it was found that, "More-traditional Navajo expectations of children were that they would work hard and act responsibly—in adultlike ways. Anglos tend to expect children to act in more childlike ways.... More-traditional parents tend to perceive such [childlike] behavior as self-indulgent and irresponsible. At worst, children come to exploit the gap between parental and teacher expectations" (Arviso & Holm, 2001, p. 209).

An unpublished case study of a Navajo Immersion School done by Arizona State University's Native Educators Research Project found that, "Navajo values are embedded in the classroom pedagogy." Teachers address their students according to Navajo kinship relations. A parent, "noticed a lot of differences compared to the other students who aren't in the immersion program. [The immersion students] seem more disciplined and have a lot more respect for older, well anyone, like teachers. They communicate better with their grandparents, their uncles and stuff. It seems like it makes them more mature and more respectful. I see other kids and they just run around crazy. My kids aren't like that.... It really helps, because it's a positive thing."

The Navajo Nation's "Diné Cultural Content Standards [for schools] is predicated on the belief that firm grounding of native students in their indigenous cultural heritage and language, is a fundamentally sound prerequisite to well developed and culturally healthy students" (Office, 2000, p. v). Navajo values to be taught include being generous and kind, respecting kinship, and sacred knowledge.

Other Native Nations have similar views. Janine Bowen's 2004 case study of an Ojibwe (also known as Anishenabe and Chippewa) language program found that the decline in the use of the Ojibwe language was correlated "with a loss of Ojibwe traditions, the unraveling of the extended family, depression among Band members, high drop out rates among Ojibwe students, and an increasing amount of gang activity among youth" (p. 4). A former Ojibwe Commissioner of Education argued, "By teaching the language we are building a foundation for a lifetime of productive citizenship.... Ojibwe values are inextricably linked to the language. These values, such as caring for the environment, healing the body and mind together, and treating all creation with respect are taught most effectively when they are taught in Ojibwe" (p. 4).

More needs to be done to support Native Nations wishing to restore the frayed social fabric of their peoples caused, in part, by insensitive English-only assimilationist education of the type supported by U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in their 2003 report A Quite Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs In Indian Country noted that, "community responsibility for and ownership of schools are crucial for creating a positive learning environment that respects students' civil and educational rights" (p. 85). It concluded that,

as a group, Native American students are not afforded educational opportunities equal to other American students. They routinely face deteriorating school facilities, underpaid teachers, weak curricula, discriminatory treatment, and outdated learning tools. In addition, the cultural histories and practices of Native students are rarely incorporated in the learning environment. As a result, achievement gaps persist with Native American students scoring lower than any other racial/ethnic group in basic levels of reading, math, and history. Native American students are also less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to dropout in earlier grades. (pp. 111-112)
However, this is not to say that Native Nations don't support the teaching of English along with their tribal languages, government, and history.

Arizona State University researcher Jeff MacSwan found that English Immersion programs being implemented in Arizona under its English-only Proposition 203 that are affecting both immigrant and American Indian students,

are known to be poorly conceived and extremely ineffective among educators and researchers. While the program promises children will learn English quickly in such programs and enter the mainstream overnight, the facts tell us otherwise. In Arizona, the state's all-English program failed 89 percent of its English learners, putting them at serious risk of falling behind academically in classrooms with incomprehensible instruction rendered entirely in English. Research conducted on such programs predicted the disaster. In bilingual programs, kids learn English faster, and they also have higher academic achievement as a result. (personal communication, March 7, 2006)
Besides the academic failure, the tragedy is that Navajo, Hispanic, and other children speaking only English are unable to talk to their non-English-speaking grandparents and thus unable to learn traditional family values from them.


Arviso, M., & Holm, W. (2001). Tséhootsooidi Olta'gi Diné Bizaad Bihoo'aah: A Navajo Immersion Program at Fort Defiance, Arizona. In L. Hinton & K. Hale (Eds.), The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. (pp. 203-235). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Bowen, J.J. (2004). The Ojibwe Language Program: Teaching Mille Lacs Band Youth the Ojibwe Language to Foster a Stronger Sense of Cultural Identity and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Hayworth, J.D., & Eule, J. (2006). Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror. Washington, DC: Regnery.

Hernandez, D.J., & Charney, E. (Eds.) (1998). From Generation to Generation: The Health and Well-being of Children in Immigrant Familes. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Holm, A., & Holm, W. (1990). Rock Point, A Navajo Way to Go to School: A Valediction. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 508, pp. 170-184. Office of Diné Culture, Language & Community Service, Division of Diné Education. (2000). Taa Sha Bik'ehgo Diné Bi Na nitin doo Ihoo'aah. Window Rock, AZ: Author.

Reyhner, J. (2006). Native Educators Gather in Denver. Winds of Change, 21(1), 60-61.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2003). A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs In Indian Country. Washington, DC: Author.

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