ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When Brittany Arviso was old enough to take part in a Navajo coming-of-age ceremony, her family grappled with the preparations. Not knowing where to find some of the items for the ceremony, they turned to her grandparents for help.
Her father and grandfather went up into the mountains to get some plants and other things for the four-day ceremony.
But there was one thing that 12-year-old Brittany didn’t have and wished she did – knowing more of her native language so she could better understand the ceremony.
“If I had been able to speak and understand a little language, it would have been easier and more helpful,” she said.
Her parents hope that a new Navajo language summer school offered by Albuquerque Public Schools this year will eventually help her learn more about her culture and language. Her 10-year-old brother, Lucas, is in the classes, and Brittany may be able to join next year if the program is expanded.
Brittany said such a program would have benefited her during her coming-of-age ceremony last summer.
The program aims to help Navajo and Isleta Pueblo children living in the Albuquerque area stay connected to their heritage and thereby motivate them to achieve more academically, said Daisy Thompson, director of the district’s Indian Education Department.
While tribes nationwide often offer summer Native language programs, it’s uncommon for them to be offered in public schools, said Inee Slaughter, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Indigenous Language Institute, which tries to help preserve Native languages worldwide.
New Mexico, Washington, Oregon and North Dakota lead the country in allowing Native Americans to obtain licenses to teach their languages in public school classrooms, making such programs possible, Slaughter said.
Robert Cook, president of the National Indian Education Association, said Native language immersion schools are growing nationwide with Native Hawaiian programs serving as a model for other tribes.
In Albuquerque, 90 kindergartners through fifth graders spent six hours a day for four weeks learning the Navajo or Tiwa languages and traditions, like baking bread in outdoor adobe ovens or how to formally introduce themselves to their elders.
First graders ground corn kernels using a stone mortar and pestle, while kindergartners carded and spun raw wool using traditional wooden implements.
Second grade teacher Vivian Montoya taught her students to say “nizhoni,” which means “very good,” as the children introduced themselves in Navajo.
The students needed to learn the phrase rather than clapping for their classmates, Montoya explained, because Navajos believe applause is disrespectful to the thunder bolt.
Thompson said many Native Americans move off the reservations to seek education and employment in urban areas and begin to lose their language and culture. “You will see Native Americans in almost every city across the country,” she said.
The Albuquerque school district serves 5,700 to 5,900 Native American students with the majority being Navajo, Thompson said.
Many of these children growing up in urban areas have little understanding of their language or their families’ traditions. Some have difficulty communicating with elderly family members whose first or only language is the tribal language.
Brittany’s father, Mike Arviso, has lived in Albuquerque for 20 years and is an electrical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. He and his wife, April, hope that Lucas can someday talk with his grandmother in Navajo, which she feels more comfortable speaking than English.
On his first day of the summer program, Lucas learned about the Navajo code talkers and how they confounded the Japanese during World War II by transmitting messages in their native language.
“That really drew him in right away,” Mike Arviso said. “Because of the language, a single word has so many different meanings.”
While many of the families want the instruction because of practical reasons, like enabling their children to speak with relatives in their native language, Thompson also sees long-term educational benefits.
Research shows that becoming disconnected from their culture leads to a lack of motivation among Native American students and can leave students behind academically, Thompson said.
For example, among New Mexico 10th graders taking the state high school competency exam, only 47 percent of Native American students passed the first time, compared with 77 percent of white students, according to state Public Education Department data for the 2007-2008 school year.
“If the Native American children feel that their culture, their language, their heritage is valued in the school, they will be very motivated,” Thompson said.
Mike and April Arviso say their family has reconnected with their culture through the ceremonies that their relatives have. He marvels at tribal members’ knowledge about nature, the intricate rituals and ceremonies and sometimes considers returning to the reservation, at least part-time.
“What are we doing over here in the city? Because we know absolutely nothing about up there. We think we’re smart. We think we’re doing good, but when you go out there you’re incompetent, you know nothing,” he said. “To me, they’re the ones that are smart. They know about life.”
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