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Nurturing Native Languages and Cultures. Jon Reyhner

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nurturing native languages and cultures

Nurturing NativeLanguages and Cultures

Jon Reyhner


John J. Miller of The National Review, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2002, declared that the increasing pace of language death is “a trend that is arguably worth celebrating [because] age-old obstacles to communication are collapsing” and primitive societies are being brought into the modern world. However, far too often this modern world is one of the materialistic and hedonistic MTV culture. Miller's call for celebration is nothing new, and I hope in this speech today to show how wrongheaded it is.



Stephen R. Riggs and his wife Mary started missionary work with the Sioux in 1837. In 1852 he published a Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language. They found teaching English “to be very difficult and not producing much apparent fruit.” It was not the students’ lack of ability that prevented them from learning English, but rather their unwillingness. “Teaching Dakota was a different thing. It was their own language.”


In 1869 After the Civil War, President Grant’s Peace Commissioners concluded that language differences led to misunderstandings and that “by educating the children of these tribes in the English language these differences would have disappeared, and civilization would have followed at once . . . Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought; customs and habits are molded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated.”


The Peace Commission went on to declare “In the difference of language to-day lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted.”

However, while Christian missionaries were in favor of ending tribal traditions, they were more willing than the government to use tribal languages in their teaching.


In 1869 Reverend S.D. Hinman reported, “it is a wonder to me how readily they learn to read our language; little fellows will read correctly page after page of their school books, and be able to spell every word, and yet not comprehend the meaning of a single sentence.” He complained about the “monotony and necessary sameness of the school-room duty.” In contrast to the problems associated with getting Indians to learn English, Hinman reported that three adult Yankton (Sioux) warriors rode back and forth from their agency forty miles every week to learn to read and write their own language.


In the 1871 report of the Board of Indian Commissioners Mr. Welsh wrote “Theirs is a phonetic language, and a smart boy will learn it in three or four weeks; and we have found it far better to instruct them in their own language, and also to teach them English as fast as we can.” The missionaries’ success of teaching Native languages is indicated in the same report by Mr. Janney, a Quaker, who wrote that “A very small portion of the tribe, so far as I could discover, speak or write the English language, but a large number speak and write their own, and are able to hold correspondence with those who are in Minnesota and Wisconsin.”


In contrast to the success of native language instruction, reports on English language instruction were often discouraging. For example, in 1872 the Tahlequah Indian Agent reported that “The children . . . go to school, and with great labor learn to read and write English, but without understanding the meaning of the words they read and write” while “almost the whole of those Cherokees who do not speak English can read and write the Cherokee by using the characters invented by Sequoyah.”


In 1871 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions started publishing with the Dakota mission a monthly newspaper called IAPI OAYE (The Word Carrier) mostly in the Dakota language. An editorial in an early edition of that paper declared,


“It is sheer laziness in the teacher to berate his Indian scholars for not understanding English, when he does not understand enough Indian to tell them the meaning of a single one of the sentences he is trying to make them understand properly, though they have no idea of the sense. The teacher with his superior mind, should be able to learn half a dozen languages while these children of darkness are learning one. Even though the teacher’s object were only to have them master English, he had better teach it to them in Indian, so they may understand what they are learning.”


The correspondent with Secretary of the Interior Schurz reported in 1880 that, “Mr. [Alfred] Riggs is of the opinion that first teaching the children to read and write in their own language enables them to master English with more ease when they take up that study; and he thinks, also, that a child beginning a four years’ course with the study of Dakota would be further advanced in English at the end of the term than one who had not been instructed in Dakota.”


In spite of this, Secretary of the Interior Schurz demanded in 1880 that “all instruction must be in English” in mission and govern-ment schools. In 1884 an order went out to a school teaching in Dakota and English that “English language only must be taught the Indian youth placed there for educational and industrial training at the expense of the Government. If Dakota or any other language is taught such children, they will be taken away and their support by the Government will be withdrawn from the school.”


The ethnocentric attitude prevalent in the late 19th Century is again evident in Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C. Atkins' 1887 report: “Every nation is jealous of its own language, and no nation ought to be more so than ours, which approaches nearer than any other nationality to the perfect protection of its people. True Americans all feel that the Constitution, laws, and institutions of the United States, in their adaptation to the wants and requirements of man, are superior to those of any other country; and they should understand that by the spread of the English language will these laws and institutions be more firmly established and widely disseminated.”


“Nothing so surely and perfectly stamps upon an individual a national characteristic as language. . . . [As the Indians] are in an English-speaking country, they must be taught the language which they must use in transacting business with the people of this country. No unity or community of feeling can be established among different peoples unless they are brought to speak the same language, and thus become imbued with like ideas of duty. . . .”


“The instruction of the Indians in the vernacular is not only of no use to them, but is detrimental to the cause of their education and civilization, and no school will be permitted on the reservation in which the English language is not exclusively taught.”


A number of missionaries strongly objected to Atkins' orders, claiming that he lacked knowledge of their successes in the field. Missionary societies that were engaged in foreign missions were very conscious of importance of using local languages in their work. The president of Dartmouth college declared that, “The idea of reaching and permanently elevating the great mass of any people whatever, by first teaching them all a foreign tongue, is too absurd ever to have been entertained by sane men.”


Luther Standing Bear (1928) complained that the Civil Service Examination was not necessary for primary teachers and that his students did better than the students of white teachers who got all their knowledge from books “but outside of that, they knew nothing.” He felt, “The Indian children should have been taught how to translate the Sioux tongue into English properly; but the English teachers only taught them the English language, like a bunch of parrots. While they could read all the words placed before them, they did not know the proper use of them; their meaning was a puzzle.”


Polingaysi Qöyawayma

Starting as a 1st grade teacher in the early 1930s, Polingaysi was nervous, but she felt that she at least knew her students’ language. However, her supervisors reminded her she was forbidden to use the Hopi language. She questioned their directives: “What do these white-man stories mean to a Hopi child? What is a ‘choo-choo’ to these little ones who have never seen a train? No! I will not begin with the outside world of which they have no knowledge. I shall begin with the familiar. The everyday things. The things of home and family.”


In defiance of her supervisors she continued to substitute familiar Hopi legends, songs, and stories for Little Red Riding Hood. Parents questioned what she was teaching, saying, “We send our children to school to learn the white man’s way, not Hopi. They can learn the Hopi way at home.” Despite these complaints she persevered in trying to help her children “blend the best of the Hopi tradition with the best of the white culture, retaining the essence of good, whatever its source.” When John Collier became Indian Commissioner in 1934 under Roosevelt, she found “overnight” her teaching methods supported, to the “consternation” of the older teachers.


Indian New Deal

During the “Indian New Deal” of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration, the Indian Office sup-ported progressive education and experimented with bilingual education.


Rock Point Community School

Rock Point Community School started a maintenance/developmental bilingual pro-gram in 1967 when it was found that English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching methods did not bring up Navajo students’ tests scores to national averages. In Rock Point’s bilingual program students were taught using immersion teaching methods to read and write Navajo starting in Kinder-garten while they also start learning English.


UNM Professor Bernard Spolsky summed up the results of the RPCS bilingual program: “In a community that respects its own language but wishes its children to learn another, a good bilingual program that starts with the bulk of instruction in the child’s native language and moves systematically toward the standard language will achieve better results in standard language competence than a program that refuses to recognize the existence of the native language.” Navajo Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah noted the importance of teaching Navajo in schools in 1983. He declared that, “No-one can fully participate in the affairs of the Navajo people without speaking Navajo.”


Navajo Literacy

Tony Smiley, who worked as a literacy tutor at Rock Point Community School, recently wrote, “there were Navajo literacy classes offered locally. Diné college also offered classes and we were even encouraged to get our certification in Navajo language through the college. Eventually I ended up in the classroom and taught Navajo language. I think that this is the best thing that has happened to me. I believe that it made me more aware of myself. I consider myself lucky to be able to read and write in Navajo.”


Another Navajo teacher Carol Johnson stated, “From writing I’ve learned how to read. It has helped me to feel confident in the classroom. I've also greatly improved in my speaking of the language. I can read Navajo stories to my students.... They know that our language has its own writing. I always tell them that it is hard to learn but once you've come across that barrier, you can accomplish anything.”


Navajo Tribal Education Policies

In 1984 the Navajo Tribal Council adopted a language policy. In its preface Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah wrote, “We believe that an excellent education can produce achievement in the basic academic skills and skills required by modern technology and still educate young Navajo citizens in their language, history, government and culture.” The policies require schools serving Navajo students to have courses in Navajo history and culture and support local control, parental involvement, Indian preference in hiring, and instruction in the Navajo language. They declare:


Navajo Tribal Education Policies

The Navajo language is an essential element of the life, culture and identity of the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation recognizes the importance of preserving and perpetuating that language to the survival of the Nation. Instruction in the Navajo language shall be made available for all grade levels in all schools serving the Navajo Nation. Navajo language instruction shall include to the greatest extent practicable: thinking, speaking, comprehension, reading and writing skills and study of the formal grammar of the language.


Native American Languages Act

In 1990 Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed The Native American Languages Act. It states that it’s the policy of the U.S. Government to support, preserve, and protect American Indian languages. It is a tribute to American Indians determined persistence against the forces of cultural assimilation and a reaction to renewed calls for assimilation from the conservative English-only movement that wants a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the U.S.


Indian Nations at Risk Task Force

In 1991, the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Indian Nations at Task Force identified four reasons that Indian Nations are at risk. Its second reason was that “Schools have discouraged the used of Native languages… [with the result that] the language and culture base of the American Native are rapidly eroding" The Task Force set 10 national goals, with goal 2 being: “By the year 2000 all schools will offer Native students the opportunity to maintain and develop their tribal languages and will create a multicultural environment that enhances the many cultures represented in the school.”


In the Final Report's transmittal letter, the Task Force's co-chairs, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and former Alaska Commissioner of Education William G. Demmert, Jr., wrote:

“The Task Force believes that a well-educated American Indian and Alaska Native citizenry and a renewal of the language and culture base of the American Native community will strengthen self-determination and economic well-being and will allow the Native community to contribute to building a stronger nation—an America that can compete with other nations and contribute to the world's economies and cultures.”


Te Kohanga Reo

To counter the rapid loss of their language Maori leaders decided to capitalize on the fact that many elders still spoke their language and started in 1982 a Maori immersion preschool movement, called te kohanga reo, which translates as “language nest,” using fluent Maori speaking elders.


The main features of these Maori pre-schools were that Maori was the only language to be spoken and heard, no smoking was allowed, they were to be kept very clean in the interest of health, and decisions were made by the parents and preschool teachers. The preschools spread rapidly and by 1991, there were 700 of these preschools with 10,000 children enrolled.


As more Maori speaking children graduated from the language nests, parents wanting their children’s Maori education continued put pressure on the New Zealand government to established Maori immersion elementary schools. Using wording in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the British government and the Maori, the Maori were able to convince the government to build on the success of the preschools by first providing Maori immersion elementary schools, then secondary schools, and finally Maori language university programs.


Native Hawaiians started family-based immersion preschools in 1984 soon after the Maori of New Zealand pioneered them.A parent described to me the Punano Leo as “a way of life…you have to take it home” that is bringing back the moral values of the culture and explained how that helped mend families. Parent involvement includes parents learning the language and volunteering to help clean the preschool.


On March 8-10, 2004, the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP) held its third Language and Culture Preservation Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. OIEP director Ed Parisian welcomed the large gathering of Bureau educators to this meeting, emphasizing the BIA’s goal that “students will demonstrate knowledge of language and culture to improve academic achievement.” He went on to say that “we know from research and experience that individuals who are strongly rooted in their past—who know where they come from—are often best equipped to face the future.”


Aha Punana Leo

In one OIEP session, Namaka Rawlins, director of the Hawaiian Aha Punana Leo program, noted that in Hawaii they are working now to get a Hawaiian Ph.D. degree program approved. While starting with preschool language nests, they have moved on to elementary, secondary, and now university Hawaiian language medium (immersion) classes. The Hawaiian language medium school movement has been parent driven. Rather than ghettoization, she noted that “our traditions are relevant for all students’ education,” and some non-Hawaiians participate.


Rawlins noted that students in the Hawaiian immersion classes are doing equal to or better than English students, but it takes about two years to fully transition to an all-English program if they drop out of the Hawaiian program. The success of the program is tied to the commitment of parents and teachers. For teachers, “this is a way of life; it’s not just a job.” The goal of the Hawaiian immersion programs is to re-establish the traditional Hawaiian philosophy of life and apply it to modern times.


It was not till 1986 that the 1896 law against using the Hawaiian language in schools was repealed. There are now 22 immersion or Hawaiian medium schools with about 2,000 children enrolled. Only four schools can teach algebra and biology in Hawaiian because of the lack of qualified teachers. As Hawaiian medium instruction matures, teachers are moving from translating curriculum from English to Hawianizing it.


Punana Leo (Language Nest)

Mission Statement

“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.”


Cry those tears of shame out. You have no time to be ashamed, wait or avoid it. You need to go forward and speak. Empowered to become our own experts to learn our language. We must become responsible, no linguist, no universities, no language policies to give your language back. It’s up to us.

--Nancy Richardson, Aruk


It’s sad to be the last speaker of your language. Please, turn back to your own and learn your language so you won’t be alone like me. Go to the young people. Let go of the hate in your hearts. Love and respect yourselves first. Elders please give them courage and they will never be alone. Help our people to understand their identity. We need to publish materials for our people. To educate the white people to us and for indigenous people.

--Mary Smith, last speaker of Eyak


Indigenous Language Symposia Goals

1. To provide a forum for the exchange of scholarly research on teaching American Indian languages.

2. 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.

3. To disseminate though a monograph recent research and thinking on best practices to promote, preserve, and protect American Indian languages.


Teaching Indigenous Languages web site pages were visited over 45,000 times in October 2003 with visitors coming from over 90 different countries.


“Believing in the language brings the generations together.... If there’re any seeds left, there’s an opportunity to grow.”

Leanne Hinton, Co-chair

Eleventh Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Conference, University of California, Berkeley, June 11-13, 2004