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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 27, 2003 - Issue 103


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Hopis attempt to save language

by Zsombor Peter, Staff Writer - Gallup Independent
credits: Hopi Women in Blanket

Hopi Women in BlanketTUBA CITY — It is not an encouraging number: Of those Hopi between the ages of 20 and 39, only 50 percent speak their native language fluently. That was the finding of a survey the Hopi tribe commissioned in 1998, and by its own estimates, that number has only fallen since.

But with the governing board of the Tuba City Unified School District's decision Wednesday to adopt the tribe's Hopilavayi, or Hopi Language, program, the Hopi nation has taken one more step toward saving its language from the extinction fate would condemn it to.

Spurred by the worrisome results of the language survey, the Hopi tribal council that same year directed its cultural preservation office, department of education and board of education to oversee the new Hopilavayi program. Under Coordinator Dawa Taylor's direction, it has since designed a Hopi language curriculum being implemented at three of the eight schools across the Hopi reservation. And at Moenkopi Day School, southeast of Tuba City, teachers instruct their K-6 students in a combination of English and Hopi across subject areas.

But, as with most borders, those circumscribing the Hopi nation don't so neatly divide Hopi from non-Hopi as the map might suggest. And the fact that hundreds, possibly thousands, of Hopi among a nation numbering somewhere under 12,000 live outside of the reservation makes extending the Hopilavayi program beyond the tribe's official borders critical for its success.

"One of our guiding principles is to provide the language program to all Hopi, no matter where they are," said Taylor. He estimated the Hopi population of Tuba City High School, just miles outside the borders of the western pocket of the Hopi reservation that surrounds the village of Moenkopi, at over 30 percent. And depending on how things go in Tuba City, Taylor said, the tribe has its eyes on extending the program eastward onto the Navajo nation to the Cedar Public School District, which also serves a large Hopi population.

"The district wanted the class, the administration saw a need for the class, the students definitely saw a need for the class," Taylor said of the program's enthusiastic reception in Tuba City. In fact, said Taylor, a petition circulated by Tuba City High School students in November attracted both Hopi and non-Hopi signatures. "That was really heartfelt ... to see that not only Hopi students were wanting this, but other students as well."

The Tuba City board's decision to adopt the Hopilavayi curriculum at the district's high school and junior high school Wednesday will mean a teacher and assistant at each school at the district's expense, said Taylor. The only obstacle, he said, was that the district had not yet identified funds with which to pay for them. With luck, that should happen by the start of the spring semester.

And the district won't be able to use any of the $400,000 the Hopi tribal council approved in August as its second distribution from the Arizona Intertribal Trust Fund. The tribe, according to Taylor, has earmarked the money for the Hopilavayi program to spend over the next four years on community programs, teacher training, more studies and oversight.

Taylor said the tribe is also working on developing proficiency standards the Hopi Department of Education will use to certify Hopi language teachers in order to guarantee minimum standards; he expected them to be ready early next year.

Not that time is on their side. According to a 1993 study Taylor cited, of the more than 300 indigenous languages of North America, 175 exist today, and the vast majority of those only tentatively. The study also predicted that only 20 of those languages would remain by 2060 if the current trend continued.

And most language on the edge, Taylor added, usually die within three generations.

"We're in a really critical stage right now," he said. "I'm pretty sure we're in the second generation of that. We don't want to get to the last generation, so we're working really hard to reverse that trend."

And it's more than just the language that's at stake, he insisted. "Without the language, many of the religious and cultural aspects will also cease once it is lost."

But for all the tribe is doing to save its language, Taylor knows it will take more than offering high schoolers Hopi as an elective ironically foreign language class. The goal, he knows, is to get those students, and all Hopi, to incorporate the language into their lives.

"We want to encourage the speaking of Hopi in everyday lives, in the homes," Taylor said, "and I believe we're moving towards that goal."

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