Leaders from three Cherokee nations came together in October to mark the opening of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' Kituwah Academy, a language-immersion school for kindergarteners to fifth-graders in Cherokee, N.C.
“It is a wonderful initiative for the Cherokee,” says Ellen L. Lutz, executive director for Cultural Survival, a nonprofit advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass., which promotes the rights of indigenous communities. “Young, self-confident Cherokee kids will not forget who they are because of the education they receive at this school.”
In 1838 members of the Ketoowah and Cherokee nations in Oklahoma were relocated from their homes by military force in direct violation of an 1832 Supreme Court ruling affirming their right to remain on their traditional territory. Some evaded relocation while others returned to tribal lands in North Carolina. In recent years, profits from several enterprises have encouraged the tribes to take on the multigenerational challenge of preserving their own language. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma opened its own immersion school in 2003, and its curriculum serves as the basis for the Eastern Band's.
Many such Indian schools have opened throughout the nation, but some Indian communities have opted for informal language instruction outside the classroom. The Hualapai Tribe in Arizona, for example, holds summer camps for younger generations.
Of the nation's 175 surviving Native American dialects, only 20 are expected to remain in 2050, according to the Indigenous Language Institute (ILI), a nonprofit advocacy group in Santa Fe, N.M. Fifty currently surviving languages have five or fewer speakers — all older than 70 — and face imminent extinction, according to Cultural Survival.
“This is a linguistic emergency,” says Ineé Yang Slaughter, executive director of ILI. “It is about losing history and identity.”
More than a century ago, during attempts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society, the federal government targeted Native American languages in a campaign termed by some linguists as “linguistic genocide.”
In an 1887 report, Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C. Atkins wrote, “In the difference of language today lies two-thirds of our trouble…. Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted.”
During the same period, boarding schools established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to stamp out native languages. Under English-only rules students were punished and humiliated for speaking their native language.
The coercive assimilation policy met with limited success in eradicating Indian languages, but over time the policies took a toll on the identity of many Indians, alienating them from their cultural roots. Moreover, the policies left a legacy of opposition toward bilingual and immersion education among Indians who remembered the pain they suffered in school and wanted to shield their children from similar experiences.
“The boarding schools turned to indoctrination. Native languages were burned out of their mouths,” says Lutz. “Over time, the experience led grandparents to refuse to speak the native tongues to younger generations.”
The eventual economic and social mobility of Native Americans aided in the beginning of several grassroots movements in the 1970s to bring back mother tongues.
“The next generation would say, ‘It's my language. It's my people. America took it from me. I want it back,’” explains Lutz.
Eastern Band Cherokee Indians attend the opening of Kituwah Academy, in Cherokee, N.C., in October. Housed in the renovated Boundary Tree Lodge, a historic visitors' lodge, the school teaches academic subjects and the Cherokee language (Kituwah). (Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation)
Prodded by language activists, Congress passed the Native American Languages Acts in 1990 and 1992 to facilitate efforts to preserve Native American languages. Among other things, the laws concluded that academic performance was directly tied to a respect for the first language of students.
While the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation already provided federal help for cultural preservation, the acts made tribes eligible for funding to carry out language conservation and renewal.
Despite the recent surge in teaching Native Americans their native languages, several challenges still remain. Indian-language speakers often lack the academic credentials to teach, while outside teachers are not well-versed in the cultural and linguistic nuances of Native Americans.
“The key is teaching the language to communicate as opposed to more traditional textbook education,” says Slaughter. Classroom teaching isn't always the best way to teach students to actually use the language in their communities.”
But perhaps the biggest problem is the need to compete with other more pressing priorities such as health care, economic development, housing and general academic learning.
“These other issues are critical,” Slaughter says. “But this is not just a language issue, it is an issue of cultural identity being lost. Once a language is gone, it is gone forever. We know that learning our languages strengthens us both as individuals and as a nation.”
— Darrell Dela Rosa
Collier, Virginia P., and Wayne P. Thomas, Educating English Learners for a Transformed World, Fuente Press, 2009. Two former George Mason University professors specializing in research for “at-risk” students examine different methods for teaching English-language learners and repeat their research findings that English learners benefit from additional time in native-language instruction. The book closes with 11 recommendations for educators to follow in designing programs for English learners. Includes nine-page list of references.
Crawford, James, Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th ed.), Bilingual Education Services, 2004. The longtime advocate for bilingual education provides a comprehensive history of language-education policies against the backdrop of growing language diversity due to increased immigration. Crawford, a former education reporter, served as executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education and now writes and advocates on bilingual education as head of the Institute for Language Education and Policy. Includes chapter notes, 24-page compilation of sources and suggested readings.
Gandara, Patricia, and Megan Hopkins (eds.), Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies, Teachers College Press, forthcoming (January 2010). The book examines the most up-to-date research on the impact of “restrictive language policies” adopted in three states by ballot measures: Arizona, California and Massachusetts. Gandara is professor of education at the University of California-Los Angeles; Hopkins is a doctoral student at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Porter, Rosalie Pedalino, Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education (2d ed.), Transaction, 1996. A prominent critic of bilingual education argues in favor of early and intensive instruction in English with no separation of language-minority children from fellow students. Porter served as director of language-instruction programs in Newton, Mass., in the 1980s and later as director of the READ Institute (Research in English Acquisition and Development), which has now been folded into the Center for Equal Opportunity. Includes chapter notes, four-page list of references. Porter is author most recently of the autobiographical American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages (iUniverse, 2009).
San Miguel, Guadalupe Jr., Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 1960–2001, University of North Texas Press, 2004. The compact history traces the history of federal policy on education for English-language learners from the genesis of the Bilingual Education Act in the 1960s through its repeal with the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. San Miguel is a professor of history at the University of Houston. Includes chapter notes, 45-page bibliographical essay organized by time period.
Schmid, Ronald Sr., Language Policy and Identity in the United States, Temple University Press, 2000. A professor of political science at California State University-Long Beach examines the debate over bilingual education in the United States in the broader context of language policy with comparisons to policies in other multilingual countries. Includes chapter notes, 18-page list of references.
Valencia, Richard R., Chicano Students and the Courts, New York University Press, 2008. A 46-page chapter sketches the history of bilingual education for Mexican-Americans since the Mexican-American War, discusses major bilingual-education suits in the 1970s and '80s and briefly treats the passage of state “English-only” initiatives and the repeal of the federal Bilingual Education Act. Valencia is a professor with the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas in Austin.
Goldenberg, Claude, “Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does — and Does Not — Show,” American Educator, summer 2008, www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/summer08/goldenberg.pdf. A professor of education at Stanford University delineates three conclusions from the research on English learners, including the key finding that teaching students in their first language promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English. Adapted from “Improving Achievement for English Language Learners, in Susan B. Neuman (ed.), Educating the Other America: Top Experts Tackle Poverty, Literacy, and Achievement in Our Schools (Paul H. Brooke Publishing Co., 2008).
Reports and Studies
Rossell, Christine H., “Dismantling Bilingual Education, Implementing English Immersion: The California Initiative,” Public Policy Institute of California, 2002, www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED467043&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED467043. The detailed report by the Boston University political scientist concludes that Proposition 227, the California initiative that restricted bilingual education in public schools, may have benefited English learners but cautions that English learners continued to suffer achievement gaps because of immigration status and family backgrounds.