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Indian language textbook becomes part of state’s education mission

SANTA FE, N.M. – Long-talked-about efforts to infuse Native culture and language learning in the public education system have resulted in action in New Mexico.

A textbook co-authored by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, a Navajo professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, has been selected by the state’s education department as a high-quality resource that will soon be made available to all school districts in the state.

State officials believe that New Mexico is the first state to adopt a Navajo textbook for use in the American public education system.

So far, officials from 10 districts have already signed on to have teachers in their systems use the book and its companion teaching guide. BIA schools are also eligible to review the text and decide whether to use it starting in the 2009-10 school year.

“It’s just wonderful that an Indian language is being honored in this way,” Yazzie said. “It’s so important that American Indians learn about their people, their language and their culture from their own people, rather than just reading about it in a textbook that’s written by a non-Indian.”

Yazzie’s book, “Dine’ Bizaad Binahoo’ahh,” or “Rediscovering the Navajo Language,” is filled with cultural and language lesson plans that are suitable for all ages of students, according to the author. It is illustrated with many historical and contemporary pictures of people who have lived on the Navajo reservation. It’s also accompanied by a CD with the voices of Yazzie and her brother, Berlyn Yazzie, a former educator on the Navajo Nation.

Each chapter of the user-friendly book begins with a cultural lesson and then guides students through verbs, nouns and sentence construction. It doesn’t assume that the learner has any pre-knowledge of Indian culture or language. The book is written in a bilingual format in Navajo and English and should take the average student about three years to get through, Yazzie said.

She noted that the Navajo language is one of the most difficult in the world to learn, since it has many complex structures and word formations that tend to be difficult to spell. She said she wanted the book to start off very simply, with easy words and pronunciations.

Some elders laughed when she read the first drafts to them, Yazzie said, because they thought the lessons might be too easy. Still, one of the best experiences for her in writing the book was vetting her work with area elders, whom she often invited to her home for lunches and dinners.

New Mexico Education Secretary Veronica Garcia said the book’s contents align with state teaching guidelines and were reviewed by educators throughout the state before the education department approved its use.

“It is terribly exciting, “Garcia said. “We know that if children have a strong understanding of concepts in their own language, they are better able to understand complex concepts in English.”

Garcia expects that the book’s use will help improve Native studentachievement. While Native students have traditionally been at the lower end of the achievement gap in the state, they are already beginning to make progress. Results from state tests released in early August showed large gains in the number of Indian students performing at proficient levels over earlier tests.

Native educators have long said that Native students learn better when lessons are presented relevant to their culture and language. Recent studies by leaders with the National Indian Education Association and others have supported that idea.

Ten school districts in New Mexico already provide Navajo language instruction, with more than 5,000 estimated to have taken such classes during the 2006 – 07 school year.

Yazzie and Garcia both said that they are eager for non-Indians to also be touched by the book. They said that learning a different language, like Navajo, not only helps promote brain development; it will also assist non-Natives in becoming more aware of the culture of many Native citizens in the area.

Garcia also said she thought it would be “terrific” for more Native educators to create high-quality textbooks that could be used in school districts nationwide.

Yazzie, too, hopes that similar developments will happen on a wide-scale, national stage. “Native Americans are running out of time when it comes to learning our respective languages,” she said. “And that’s scary.”

Margaret Noori, a professor of Ojibwe language and literature at the University of Michigan, is glad to finally see an attempt at culture and language infusion on the state level. She said that while Navajo speakers are ahead of many other communities in accomplishing such a feat, she believes the development will provide a strong role model for more states to take action.

Noori herself has had discussions with officials in Michigan’s State Board of Education about getting Ojibwe taught in a wider range of schools – not just ones with high Native enrollment. She said only one-third of students enrolled in her classes are heritage speakers, so she sees that as a sign that many non-Indians are interested in learning about Native culture and language.

Noori noted, too, that many nations, including the U.S., have passed laws that support indigenous people’s cultural revitalization efforts. For instance, some tribes have received financial assistance as a result of the Native American Languages Act.

“What’s really interesting about the New Mexico development is that it goes beyond financial support,” Noori said. “A state is now saying it believes in Native content being meaningful and important to helping students learn.

“That’s almost just as good, or, in the long term, a better message than just throwing money at the issue.”