Books & Arts | February 16, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Creating the Navajo Classroom

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Growing up near Bowl Canyon on the Navajo Nation Reservation, Damon Clark ‘17 would play cowboys and Indians. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be the cowboy, because the cowboy kills the Indian,” he says. “You know who wins, and you know who loses.”

The cowboy-Indian divide is not so black and white now as it was when Clark’s great-great-grandfather, Chief Manuelito, led a guerrilla war in the 1860s to oppose the U.S. government’s forced relocation of the tribe. Clark firmly considers himself Navajo—“I know how to introduce myself, I know the history, I live the culture”— but he is not fluent in the language. Neither are many of his peers: of the 300,000 Navajos in the United States, almost half do not speak Navajo at home. And this challenge is not confined to one tribe. At the Ivy Native Council Summit in Brown University in October, for instance, only two out of 125 attendees were fluent in their tribal language.

For Native American communities, the language issue compounds other obstacles that they feel are chipping away at their heritage. Eighty-eight percent of self-identifying Native Americans live off reservations, and only a quarter speak their traditional language at home. Added to that is the hefty challenge of economic development and education in communities that, on average, are significantly poorer than non-Native America. Teachers and administrators who are attempting to retain native language programs face members in these communities who view embracing English as the key to socioeconomic success and students who are indifferent about learning their traditional tongue. This divide points to a larger question: without the Navajo language, what does it mean to be Navajo?

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These issues of language and identity have become even more salient in recent years. Recently, Lucasfilm released a Navajo version of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and Disney announced plans to release a translation of Finding Nemo. In October, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court disqualified the presidential candidacy of Chris Deschene, a highly educated lawyer, engineer, and veteran, on the grounds that he was not fluent in Navajo. (A legislative move to retroactively change the language requirements for presidential candidates was vetoed by the current president, Ben Shelly.)

The difficulties facing Navajo language education have remained fairly consistent since the revival of interest in indigenous culture and activism in the 1970s as part of the civil rights movement and the passage of the 1972 Indian Education Act and the 1975 Indian Self-Assistance and Education Assistance Act. According to Dr. AnCita Benally, the education program manager at the Office of Standards, Curriculum, and Assessments Development at the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education, many community members believe that classes about Diné (the Navajo word for the Navajo language and people) are irrelevant or even counterproductive. Such people, she says, believe that “academic achievement … [can]
be achieved only with English.” Frequently, administrators and teachers think that teaching the language is pointless, and parents argue that cultural education should be taught at home or left by the wayside. “And so people are assuming that if there is a lot of Navajo language and culture education, it will interfere with the academic success,” she concludes.

The memorial to Navajo code talkers remembers the Navajo U.S. Veterans who used their native language to translate and transmit secret military messages during World War II and the Korean War. The Navajo code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.

The memorial to Navajo code talkers remembers the Navajo U.S. Veterans who used their native language to translate and transmit secret military messages during World War II and the Korean War. The Navajo code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.

At home, though, many parents either continue to emphasize English, or they are unfamiliar with Navajo themselves—a product of similar emphasis by their own parents and schools. Shelly Lowe, the executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program, explains that her parents’ generation was taught to prioritize English. “My grandparents’ generation would still speak to them in Navajo, [but] the expectation was, ‘You speak English, and that’s important.’ So when my generation came along, we were primarily and only taught English in a lot of cases. Even though we knew and listened to our parents speak to our grandparents in Navajo … we were spoken to in English.” This prioritization had a self-perpetuating effect: as more and more Navajos became used to English in business and daily life, it became the de facto necessary language for economic success.

This vicious cycle is compounded for those Native Americans who live off reservations. In more urban or heterogeneous areas, the forces of assimilation are even stronger: children attend English-speaking public schools with peers whose cultural backgrounds are strikingly different from their tribal heritage. For such off-reservation Indians, the pragmatic benefits of English are even more striking, and the need for their native language seems all the more unclear.

As a result, most school-age Navajos—especially those that don’t speak Diné at home—are apathetic towards learning their tribal language. In Dr. Benally’s view, they’re “more interested in music and texting their friends and that kind of stuff,” but music, texts, movies, and websites are all in English. Those that are about to graduate or attend universities often experience renewed interest in their heritage, but by then they are making up for lost time. “Once they get into college, a lot of them finally realize what they don’t have.”

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Dineé Dorame, Yale University senior from Albuquerque, N.M. experienced this pattern. Her mother’s fluency in Navajo had a limited effect, and her interest in learning the language only began near the end of high school. “I just never really picked up on it as a kid because she thought it was much more important for me to be fluent and able to study in English,” she explains. Dorame became curious about learning Navajo at the same time as she considered applying for the Chief Manuelito Scholarship. (Clark’s great-great-grandfather is now the namesake of a middle school in Gallup, N.M. as well as a scholarship that provides college funds for high-achieving Navajo students who have also completed Navajo language and government courses.) Thus, she enrolled in an approved Navajo class at the University of New Mexico.

But the course would introduce new hindrances. In short, the entire classroom structure—the textbooks, the rigidity of the curriculum, the heterogeneous and confusing mixture of Navajo and non-Navajo students—resulted in class that was both ineffective and ultimately disappointing. “Oftentimes, native languages aren’t meant to be taught in that environment,” she believes. “Many native languages incorporate cultural values within the language, so it’s really hard to teach it within this Western education structure.” It is difficult for a large classroom setting to replicate the experience of learning a language in daily life through discussions, songs, and stories. But in cultures where the oral nature of the language is so important—and where these community discussions are important in teaching other traditional practices, beliefs, and values—stripping this aspect from the curriculum often results in a truncated education.

At Yale, Dorame enrolled in a Directed Independent Language Study program, which paired her with another student and a certified Navajo teacher twice a week. The small size allowed for greater flexibility while avoiding the pitfalls of the larger, more impersonal University of New Mexico class. (Most universities, including Harvard, do not teach native languages, often because of a lack of qualified teachers, funding, or student interest.) When it comes to native languages, she maintains, “[Native language programs] weren’t mean to teach through textbooks. They’re meant to teach through oral histories, through your ways of living, through prayer, through song. That is part of your language-learning experience.”

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Dorame’s story points to the dual challenge faced by Navajo students. First, there’s the issue of community support: if children, parents, and teachers are unconvinced that schools should provide language instruction, then the programs are dead in the water. But even if everyone agrees that Navajo education is an important part of the curriculum, there’s still the question of how to implement the new programs in the most effective way possible.

The first task, then, is one of persuasion, where advocates like Dr. Benally argue that traditional school subjects like math, science, and history can be taught just as effectively in Navajo as in English. However, even where Navajo language courses are implemented, students often graduate with mediocre results. Dorame notes, “One problem we’re finding in these schools is that students go through the program and then feel like they haven’t learned very much. I think a lot of that has to do with the way we’re structuring the program and the way [schools] are teaching it.” The challenge lies in implementing curricula that avoid the pitfalls of Dorame’s University of New Mexico class by making the language engaging and meaningful. In order for language to play a role in identity, it seems that language courses must speak to students’ sense of identity in the first place.

Increasingly, schools are attempting to fill the native language education gap. The Department of Diné Education, for instance, trains language teachers and develops standards, curricula, and assessments for the Navajo language and culture courses at the 32 schools on the reservation funded by Bureau of Indian Affairs grants. In Flagstaff, Arizona, Puente de Hózhó Bilingual Magnet School offers immersion programs from kindergarten through fifth grade in its Spanish/English and Navajo/English programs. In Albuquerque, the Native American Community Academy (NACA) offers courses in Navajo, Lakota, Tiwa, Tewa, and Zuni, as well as Native American literature. NACA also helps spread its model of community-oriented language and cultural education through the NACA-Inspired Schools Network, which currently includes three partner schools. One of those schools, Dream Diné, opened this summer in Shiprock, N.M., in the heart of the Navajo Nation Reservation.

Kara Bobroff founded NACA as a charter school in 2006 after discussions with over 150 community members revealed that the public school system was insufficiently addressing the cultural needs of Native American students. “Preparing students academically for college, making sure they have a secure identity, and [ensuring] that they’re healthy were the three things that continued to come up in the conversations,” she recalls. The charter school incorporates these goals into its mission, and in the classroom, students actively discuss issues of identity as seen through literature, history, and contemporary issues in their communities. “We don’t really have a set way of saying, like, ‘This is how you have to think about your tribal identity!’” she says, laughing. “We want our kids to understand that they are the drivers of their identity.”

Once schools like NACA implement programs to ensure native language and cultural education, the next task is to acquire consistent funds and high-quality teachers. New Mexico’s Indian Education Act supports charter schools throughout the state, but for many grant schools, it is difficult to ensure funds. Historically, federal grants have operated on fairly short timeframes, so recipient schools have had to continuously apply for scarce funding. This summer, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings on language education grant reform. Although two bills passed the committee that would facilitate and finance grants in the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, both have been held up in the Senate since July.

Teacher training is an equally hefty challenge. “In the past, people have been assigned to teach Navajo language and culture just because they’re Navajo and they can speak Navajo. And not all of them are able to teach, because they don’t know how,” explains Dr. Benally. This problem is even more imposing for smaller tribes, where the number of native speakers is swiftly decreasing. Therefore, the Navajo Nation has initiated teacher-training programs, and schools like NACA send their instructors to places like the Lakota Summer Institute in North Dakota. The Department of Diné Education has also released textbooks and curricula for use in grant and charter schools. However, there’s still the ever-present difficulty of making language education effective and meaningful for students like Dinée Dorame and Damon Clark, who exist at the intersection of cross-cutting cultural boundaries, assimilating forces, and traditions. The task exists in every classroom to foster the bond between language and culture—so central in the lives of older generations—for Navajo youth.

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Damon Clark is growing out his hair to remind himself of his heritage. “You see these elders with long hair, and you aspire for that,” he says. He is acutely aware of the ways that Navajo culture is threatened: on and off the reservation, in and out of school, “you face that fact that you’re in assimilation.” For many Navajo today, the solution is to be proactive in sustaining the language in the classroom.

And there have been definite, if limited, successes. Before she hangs up, AnCita Benally mentions a story told to her by a colleague who went to Albuquerque for a meeting. In the schoolyard, he noticed that two young girls were playing with each other in Navajo. “In 60 years, maybe these two little girls will be in their seventies, and they will still have the language,” she concludes. “So we get surprises.”

Image Credit: Flickr / John Fowler 

Correction, February 16, 6:00 p.m.: Damon Clark’s correct graduation year is 2017. In an earlier version of this article, it was written as 2016.

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