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Seminar brings together Maori, Plains educators

CODY, Wyo. - Language immersion schools are prominent and are succeeding in not just teaching the language, but preparing students to achieve higher degrees and work in professional positions, said Tapahia Heke, a teacher of Maori studies.

Heke and a large contingent of Maori recently traveled to the northern Great Plains to participate in programs at the University of Wyoming and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's Plains Indian Museum Seminar to discuss the similarities and differences in the New Zealand and North American indigenous cultures. Music, dance, language, the environment and spirituality were part of the interactions between the Plains tribes and the Maori.

As a testament to the quality and number of the language programs established by the Maori of New Zealand, Heke's first language was English - and now he teaches that language to youth and adults.

The Maori have earned the right to have a major say in school curriculum, which has led to the incursion of the culture and language into every subject taught in the schools. The majority of Maori people who speak their language are under the age of 25 - evidence of the progress made by the language programs.

In one Maori district, only one person under the age of 25 spoke the language in the 1970s; but due to the Generation 2000 immersion schools that were created, and the cooperation between the New Zealand and Maori governments, that percentage has risen dramatically.

''If you want your children to achieve, you have to create the classes you want them to achieve in,'' Heke said.

''We can teach the way we want, but it took a long time to get there. We are just ahead of the game.''

American Indian educators are now having some say in the curriculum of public schools in North America. Montana recently funded a program called Indian Education for All; and the South Dakota Legislature passed a law this year that allows all schools to teach American Indian studies and language. What those subjects are and how they will be taught is still under discussion.

''The elders knew it had to be given to the youth,'' Keke said.

On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Arapaho language is taught in the schools, but the state dictates that the language must be written because of the need for testing.

William C'Hair, Northern Arapaho, Arapaho language instructor at the University of Wyoming, said that a specially designed method of teaching the language is now used in some schools to meet the state's requirement.

C'Hair said the elders were against using the written method at first because, according to the elders, the language should be taught in the home; but he noted that ''if the language is not taught in the schools, it may be lost.''

Heke said the Maori suggested that the language be taught at home as well as in school. Community centers called ''marae'' bring families together for cultural and social events, and the language and culture become part of any gathering with language classes held for entire communities.

The Maori have been involved with immersion schools for some time, and now North American tribes are bringing immersion schools into the mix of education. The Arapaho have immersion schools, as do the Cree tribes of Canada, who also attended the symposium; and the Blackfeet have a model immersion school called the Pagean Institute. Other immersion schools, tribal cultural experts said, are emerging across the country a few at a time.

Language instruction is also available online and on CDs.