Ear to the ground: Community-based language instruction

Published in Indian Country Today in July 2003.

Santa Fe, NM — The Indigenous Language Institute (ILI), an 11-year-old nonprofit, is getting ready to send to the printer a set of 18- to 32-page how-to handbooks for tribal language instruction. Topics in the 10-volume series include doing an initial community language survey, teacher training, and evaluating an existing curriculum. Funding for the project came from the Ford Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, and the John B. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“The handbooks will be available by November 2003,” said ILI’s executive director, Inée Yang Slaughter. “They’re designed for ease of use. You can pull out the one you need, rather than deal with a bulky book.” The series is self-contained and can be put to use immediately — a boon to those without time to travel to training sessions.

Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, a Tohono O’odham professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, noted that the information in the booklets is not language-specific and can work in a variety of communities. “In the past, some tribes have had programs, but the approaches were not necessarily adaptable to other tribes. Or perhaps there was no way to disseminate materials that had been created,” said Zepeda. “In other cases, a community may have heard about a program somewhere else, but couldn’t get information on it. Accessibility has been a problem.”

Zepeda, a board member of ILI, formulated the project in collaboration with Dr. Akiro Yamamoto, a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Kansas. To execute the concept — which included collecting up-to-date information from tribes around the country — ILI then called in Dr. Tessie Naranjo, a sociologist from Santa Clara Pueblo whose Ph.D. is from the University of New Mexico, Sheilah Nicholas, a Hopi doctoral candidate in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, and Dr. Mary Linn, curator of Native American languages for the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma and a professor in the school’s  anthropology department..

According to Dr. Michael Krauss, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, only 175 languages remain of some 300 extant at the onset of European colonization; of the surviving ones, just 20 are widely spoken by children. The most oft-cited cause for the decline is the Native-language eradication policy of the boarding schools to which many Indian children were sent during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The situation in the Western Hemisphere is part of a global trend, observed Dr. Douglas Whalen, president of the Endangered Language Fund, a nonprofit at Yale University that funds community- and university-based projects worldwide, including research on Paiute and Creek. The large regional languages — English, Spanish, Swahili, Chinese, and others — are overwhelming the smaller languages, said Whalen.

“Sometimes, even minority languages are swallowing up other small ones. It’s a complex picture,” he added. “But lately there has been a lot more activity and awareness of the small languages at the grassroots level.”

Slaughter has watched that happening in the United States. “In the past few years, we have seen a tremendous increase in the number of tribal language programs,” she said.

“It’s a credit to the young people who are learning their languages,” said Ernest L. Stevens, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, which has just sent out an appeal to member tribes to support ILI. “These children are stepping up to their responsibilities. The damage the government did is just now being reversed.”

The handbook series joins other ILI programs, including symposia, training seminars, a resource directory, community honoring events, and an annual Youth Language Fair that recognizes children for songs, prayers, readings, and other presentations that use their heritage languages. The organization’s website contains such information as lists of funding organizations and experts, a paper on intellectual property issues, and a bibliography.

The creation of a Language Materials Development Center is underway, thanks to a recent $100,000 grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition to producing teaching materials, the center will offer training and networking opportunities for language practitioners and teachers. To develop a secure financial base, ILI has launched a $5-million endowment campaign, with Cherokee actor Wes Studi as honorary chairperson.

The handbook project commenced with evaluations of tribal needs and existing curricula. Starting in 1999, Naranjo, Linn, Nicholas and others toured 54 communities from coast to coast and from the Arctic to the Sonoran Desert. In each locale, they learned how many people at what ages understood or spoke the language, and at what level. They also looked at how it was taught: for example, in a classroom or in a mentor-student relationship, with immersion instruction or in combination with English.

Naranjo described a visit to the Pechangas, in southern California. “They have an incredible program at their Head Start,” she said. “While a teacher instructs the children in English, a linguist, who’s a nontribal member, repeats everything in their Luiseno language. The kids pick it up subliminally, which you can see when they’re working independently. I liked that a whole lot.”

The elementary school at Cochiti Pueblo, in New Mexico, had an immersion-style approach, according to Slaughter, who accompanied the evaluators on some of the trips. “As soon as the children cross the threshold of the language classroom, they hear only Keres,” she recounted. “The main instructor, a Keres speaker from the community who has had teacher training, leads activities like acting out a traditional story or responding to flash cards. Two assistants, one a young adult and the other an elder, reinforce the lessons through repetition. The children are always addressed and respond in full sentences, so they learn the entire structure of the language.”

According to Naranjo, the ILI handbooks, as she and her fellow evaluators have written them, strive to help each group decide what will work best for its situation. “We heard their voices, their descriptions of what works and what doesn’t. Now, we’re trying to give them back what they really want. And we make it easy for them,” she said. “That’s the ingeniousness of this concept as Ofelia Zepeda and Akiro Yamamoto devised it.”

For more on the series or other ILI programs, contact the organization at 560 Montezuma Avenue, Suite 202, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 505-820-0311; www.indigenous-language.org.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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