Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
July 15, 2000 - Issue 14

English Only Initiative Causes Concern
by Sasheen Hollow Horn Navajo Times Staff

For over 100 years, Navajo students weren't allowed to speak or be taught in the Dine language in the classroom as part of a nationwide attempt to eradicate Native cultures and heritage. If the Arizona Unz Initiative succeeds, those times could be back.

The initiative, which is circulating throughout the state in petition form, would do away with bilingual education programs by requiring that only the English language be used by teachers in Arizona schools so that "English learners," students whose native language is not English, can pick up the language faster.

English learners would be placed in one-year "sheltered/structured English immersion" programs that would forbid teaching reading, writing and subject matter in languages other than English. Books and instructional materials in languages other than English would not be allowed. Administrators, school board members, and teachers found guilty of violating this law would be liable for attorney's fees and actual damages should parents or legal guardians sue.

Parents of English learners would be able to obtain waivers to this program, but according to the Division of Dine Education, the process is difficult and waivers are almost impossible to get. In certain circumstances, teachers and local school districts may reject waiver requests without explanation or legal consequence.

After that year, students would be placed in mainstream classrooms, filled with native English speakers and others reasonably fluent in English.

The Navajo Nation is particularly concerned about this initiative because, although primarily aimed at immigrant children in bilingual education programs, it may prohibit the teaching of the Navajo language in schools on the reservation.

"By the way it's worded, this will affect all serious Navajo language programs," said Wayne Holm, an education specialist with the Division of Dine Education. "It won't allow reading, writing, or content in anything other than English, and Navajo Nation law says that the Navajo language should be in all schools and grades."

"We also oppose this because it's supposed to be a 1-year mystical magical cure-all. Anyone who's in language learning knows that's impossible. After one year, kids are pushed to sink or swim."

Holm said there was a period from 1870-1970 in which all classroom instruction was only in English, and few Navajos graduated from high school and went on to college.

"Navajos say weave had this program for 100 years and it hasn't worked," he said. "The only thing that is happening now is that a high percentage of kids don't talk Navajo well or at all. Only 50% of kids entering kindergarten speak Navajo at all, and sometimes not terribly good Navajo."

Navajo Nation president Kelsey Begaye has said repeatedly that the preservation of the Navajo language and culture is an issue of paramount importance to the tribe. In a discussion with youth in Farmington a few weeks ago, he said that out of 270,000 or so enrolled tribal members, only 70,000 are fluent Navajo-speakers.

In a statement, Begaye said that Navajos in Arizona need to register to vote so they can vote against this initiative if it gets on the ballot. He also wanted to encourage all educators, chapter officials and other tribal officials to educate Navajo people on the initiative so that "we can continue to have Navajo language programs in our schools."

The initiative is being funded by California computer executive Ron Unz, the same person who was behind the similar, English-only in California schools law, Proposition 227, that passed in 1998. Unz has repeatedly said that he is only doing what parents of immigrant children want, by allowing them to be educated in English and not be held back in bilingual education programs that left students unable to communicate in English.

But where Proposition 227 gives parents the choice of enrolling their children in sheltered/structured English immersion classes or in traditional bilingual education classes, the Arizona Unz Initiative requires that all English learners be enrolled in one-year sheltered/structured English immersion classes unless they obtain a parental waiver. With the waiver, students can attend bilingual education classes if their school has 19 other "waivered" students, or they can enroll in a school that has bilingual education classes.

Victoria Yazzie, Miss Navajo Nation 1999-2000, said that having Navajo as her native language has not hindered her in any way, and that preserving the Navajo language is really important because you preserve the culture with it.

"This individual shouldn't give us an ultimatum," she said. "We should have the choice, let it be there for us."

Lenora Fulton, Assistant to the Director of the Division of Dine Education, compared language to a key. She said that the language was a gift given to Navajos by the Holy People, and the rules and laws that govern society were given through the spoken language.

She said that prayers in any language or form will be heard, but because the Navajo language was so specific, the only way Navajos can receive the real meanings and teachings is through the Navajo language.

"Speaking English is kind of like a key, it fits in the lock but it won't turn," she said. "Our language is the gateway to our way of life. When that is gone, it will terminate our way of life and we'll be like people in a foreign country.

"It scares us because in California, in 1998, they went ahead and implemented the law while it was in litigation," Holm said. "If it passes in Arizona, the same thing would happen. It would practically eliminate Navajo language instruction in schools."




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