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Language and ethnic studies bans are educators’ concerns

DENVER – Arizona’s anti-immigration stance may be indirectly spilling over into efforts to restore Native language and history, arousing concern among some participants in a program for Navajo Nation educators.

The potential danger to educational sovereignty from English-only classes and a ban on ethnic studies surpasses that of Texas textbooks’ downplaying of historical U.S./Native conflict, said Prof. Michael Welsh, University of Northern Colorado, who heads a key project of the federal Presidential Academy in American History and Civics Education for Navajo teachers.

The Middle Ground Project seeks to integrate Navajo history into the mainstream curriculum, a concept that is “in question these days with the Texas and Arizona controversies over what constitutes U.S. history,” he noted. The issues are being discussed among attendees at a week-long teachers’ institute that began June 6 in Denver.

The project has conducted institutes for educators and scholars who explore Diné and mainstream U.S. traditions of history and government for use by schools in Navajoland and adjoining areas. It attempts to reach the meeting place of Western and indigenous histories at points where they intersect or diverge.

“The Presidential Academy is a question-driven enquiry into history, while the current movement is an answer-driven agenda and is the antithesis of the education process.” -Prof. Michael Welsh, director, Presidential Academy in American History and Civics Education, University of Northern Colorado

Texas, a powerhouse of textbook influence, has mandated teaching American centrism. “The Texas history standards would mandate that students learn about ‘American expansionism’ instead of ‘imperialism,’ an idea that teachers on the Navajo Nation struggle with as they try to balance their students’ history with that of the American society around them,” he said.

But Welsh wonders why Arizona’s English-only school instruction and ethnic studies ban haven’t figured as widely in the public consciousness as the Texas standards.

“The Arizona ban on teaching ethnic studies also poses a challenge to the teachers with whom we work, as they cannot emphasize ‘American aggression’ in their instruction,” he said.

Arizona requires that all instruction in state public schools be conducted in English and, in addition, four hours a day must be spent in concentrated English language instruction for English language learners, whether their first language is “Spanish, Swahili, or Navajo,” according to an Arizona Department of Education staffer.

The state’s recent ban on ethnic studies programs, touted by Arizona officials as a victory for education to “unite, rather than divide students from differing backgrounds,” instead may represent the latest chapter in “who owns history” and an answer-driven agenda that is the “antithesis of the education process,” Welsh said.

Marginalizing Navajo language, culture and history in mainstream public awareness comes at a time when Navajo educators are trying to re-establish sovereignty and to broaden use of the Native language, sometimes in immersion schools, he said.

“It’s affecting Indian communities trying to restore their languages,” he said, noting that those communities “may not be the target, but it will affect them.”

Current social movements reflected in Arizona’s practices don’t involve “people who don’t want to study history, but who are studying it with an answer in mind, rather than a question,” he said, describing the answer as a need to restore America’s strength in the world and to end perceived indifference in the U.S. citizenry.

The tragedy of 9/11 “looked like a return to patriotism, but 9/11 was not Pearl Harbor,” he said, and it did not result in a transformation toward the common way of thinking for which some had hoped.

“The Presidential Academy is a question-driven enquiry into history, while the current movement is an answer-driven agenda and is the antithesis of the education process. The Presidential Academy is all about asking questions.”

The Middle Ground Project, in its fifth and final year, has served some 125 teachers and an estimated 2,000 students in school districts on and near the Navajo Nation. During the week’s program in Denver, teachers searched primary sources in the National Archives [www /] and discussed and studied a variety of topics, including the Navajo Code Talkers, Diné ecology, U.S. history, and Navajos in film.

Included in the teachers’ institute were scheduled appearances by Lorie Lee Sekayumptewa, the Navajo Nation’s director of broadcast services; and Hampton Sides, journalist and historian who wrote a biography of Army Col. Kit Carson and a current book on the search for James Earl Ray, killer of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Following the institute is a summer field trip in which groups of Navajo Nation teachers will go to the Grand Canyon to discuss their own area stories and histories, which are more extensive than those customarily presented to the public, and to Navajo trust lands that comprise Canyon de Chelly, [www /] site of a brutal campaign by Carson.