From immersion schools to early learning centers
WASHINGTON -- Don Wanatee could have been summing up the fears of many
tribes when he said last summer, "Since that casino came in, the most
traditional thing left on our reservation is the dirt roads."
As it happened, the former council member and longtime activist in national
Native affairs was speaking for his own reservation, the Meskwaki Indian
Settlement near Tama, Iowa. But the threat of fading cultural values and
lost languages was a dominant theme at a recent Indian education conference
at Wind River in Wyoming. There, too, Wanatee stood up and posed the
important but often overlooked question: "What do you use your language
The answer was immediate: For ceremonies. Without the languages that grew
up alongside the great ceremonies centered on the sun, horses, buffalo,
salmon, corn, health and other features of Native culture, the ceremonies
cannot be conducted. At that point, the culture perishes because no regular
occasion demands its profound adoption. It may become a pastime, a language
or history course at college. But without the ceremonies language makes
possible, the power that sustained Native cultures through the centuries is
At Wind River, the proposed corrective to this menacing trend was language
immersion schools on the model of the Maori of New Zealand. At immersion
schools, students study the language for up to eight hours a day. They've
been successful in Alaska, and the Administration for Native Americans has
funded some of them around the country.
Mike Gross, an attorney in Santa Fe with a longstanding tribal practice,
said research and his own experience on school boards have shown that
students who study a second language are better off intellectually in many
ways. Kathryn Manuelito, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe,
added that Indian control of a school doesn't guarantee a break in "the
recycling of assimilationist knowledge" -- only the psychology of the
teachers and the administration can do that, she said, and nothing prepares
them for the task better than a psychology that has formed itself around
the language of the particular culture.
At the same time, it's pretty clear that not every tribe with the will and
the funding to establish an immersion language school could do so -- the
number of Native speakers able to teach a language is also a factor. With
this cautionary thought in mind, it was a good time to catch up with Brian
Patterson, Bear Clan representative of the Oneida Indian Nation of New
York, at a United South and Eastern Tribes "Impact Week" meeting in
Washington, D.C. Patterson chairs the USET Culture and Heritage Committee.
"Culture and heritage is the backbone of all our communities," he said,
adding that all USET member tribes have taken steps to preserve their
languages. Ceremonies, and the ceremonial use of Native languages, are a
regular concern of the 24 USET tribes, he said.
With the help of Apple Computer Inc., the committee is tracking a Cherokee
program to put its language on the iPod, as well as other Web-based and
"Language is paramount to our Culture and Heritage Committee ... It's
continuously on our agenda."
The OIN has made the revival of its language a priority since 1995, he
said. But fluent speakers were not in abundance, and although many elders
knew it they were not teachers. So an immersion school wasn't feasible
then. An initial step therefore was to assemble the laws and data on the
Oneida language in one place, so that the tribe could focus first on
cultural preservation. Eventually the tribe hired eight Oneida women to
teach the language.
"They can embrace our language with the love of a mother's heart,"
Patterson said, a significant factor given that Oneida can be a difficult
child, linguistically speaking. It's a tough one to learn, featuring verbs
in the middle of words.
But over time, students learn the language as a living, everyday medium.
The teachers coin words and usages for the present, leading children to
think Oneida in the midst of an English-speaking world. "It's in our Early
Learning Center, in the songs, the thought process of Oneida, of being
The program is headed in the direction of immersion schooling, he said,
though only a step at a time.