and ARLEE, Montana Students in Eva Boyd's class are typical
teenagers. They fidget, wisecrack, talk to friends, and only occasionally
when asked why they are in this class, they speak with one voice:
We are losing our language; we want to preserve our heritage. The
presence of these Salish teens in this classroom, along with Eva
Boyd, a tribal elder, is testimony to that singular desire to save
a culture by saving the language.
Indian Country, many efforts to revive and revitalize Native American
languages are under way. And none too soon. Estimates vary, but
of the hundreds of languages that existed here before the arrival
of white settlers, as many as two-thirds may have disappeared. Of
those that remain, many could die along with the elders, the dwindling
brain trust of tribal language.
story shows why so many of these languages disappeared, why some
survived, and how they might be saved.
TOLL OF ASSIMILATION
From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, the national
policy regarding American Indians and Alaska Natives was assimilation.
After decades of removing indigenous people from their land to reservations,
the federal government sought to mainstream them into American society.
was a critical aspect of the assimilation policy. It was believed
that through education, Native Americans would learn the white man's
language and culture and develop the skills to function effectively
in white man's society. By 1887 the federal government had established
more than 200 Indian schools to carry out this mission.
Boyd came out of retirement to teach three Salish language classes
at Ronan High School.
Like many of her tribal contemporaries, Boyd was sent to an Indian
boarding school. At the typical boarding school, children were punished
for speaking their traditional language. Some were made to stand
in the corner, others had their knuckles rapped or rags tied around
their mouths. Many children eventually forgot their tribal language,
and those who remembered were often ashamed to use it.
Boyd managed to escape that fate. She was a willful 10-year-old
when she went to boarding school. Decades later, she explains simply,
"I didn't like it, so I left." Three days after she arrived,
Boyd walked out and hitchhiked back home to the Camas Prairie area
of the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana. There, her grandmother
raised her in the language of their ancestors.
Burland and her classmates have just one storybook that's been translated
a former foreign language instructor at Salish Kootenai College,
came out of retirement to teach three Salish language classes at
Ronan High School. For her, it's a simple matter of tribal survival.
"If we don't keep the language alive our tribe is going down.
Without the language we won't be Indians any more."
in her class understand that and struggle to learn the language.
A difficult task is made more difficult by a lack of resources.
The sole text is a Salish storybook, The Story of a Mean Little
Old Lady, with English translation.
have to do the best we can," says Boyd. Like her students,
Boyd wishes Native language instruction could start earlier, at
an age when learning a new language is not so difficult.
Cajune agrees. She is Indian Education Coordinator for the Ronan-Pablo
School District. She admires and values what Eva Boyd is doing.
"A teacher such as Eva is one way to make the school more reflective
of the community," she says, "but we are doing language
at the wrong end."
to Nkwusm," Cajune insists.
miles down the road at Arlee, in a former bowling alley that also
houses a casino, is Nkwusm. It's a tribal-run language immersion
school for preschoolers.
Small Salmon listens to a Salish story with one of his young students.
Five little ones squirm on the floor at the feet of two elders,
Pat Pierre and Stephen Small Salmon. Like Boyd, the adults are fluent
in Salish and committed to keeping the language alive, even if it
means coming out of retirement, as Pierre has done.
this damp and chilly day, he is reviewing the Salish names for months,
days of the week, and numbers. The children vigorously recite the
words. They follow Pierre to the window where he points to the sky,
the ground, and the distant hills. It is a short lesson in Salish
about the weather.
explains, "The power and wisdom of language is what has kept
our people together so that we can do meaningful things. If I can
teach the little ones the language, then we keep our identity."
research is clear about learning languages. A second language is
more easily acquired early on as children develop their language
skills, rather than at a later stage. That has great importance
for indigenous people facing the extinction of their ancestral language.
Language is more than words and rules of usage. It is the repository
of culture and identity.
In Nkwusm, the Salish are replicating what has worked elsewhere
to revive indigenous languages; they are using what's called a "language
nest." As the name implies, a language nest is more than just
another language program. It is language immersion for the youngest
members of a Native population.
the Maoris of New Zealand faced the extinction of their language
more than 20 years ago, they created language nests. Hawaiians soon
adopted the Maori model and, in the mid-1990s, a similar program
was established on the Blackfeet Reservation in Northwest Montana.
nests are seen by many as a key to reviving tribal languages. Last
year Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye proposed an amendment to the Native
American Languages Act of 1990. If passed, it would provide federal
government support for Native American survival schools, including
language nests. The 1990 act establishes as national policy the
government's responsibility to "preserve, protect, and promote
the rights of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop"
their Native languages.
May, at a U.S. Senate hearing on the proposed amendment, a delegation
representing the Blackfeet Nation stressed the difference between
Native American language survival schools and public schools. "The
academic outcomes of Native American language survival schools are
as strong as, or stronger than, public education systems and students
become speakers of their Native language," they said.
Blackfeet Native language school in Browning, MontanaNizipuhwasinhas
become a model for Nkwusm and for other communities that hope to
develop programs for young speakers of tribal languages.
tribes, however, can sustain such schools indefinitely. Founders
of Nkwusm, which is now supported by grants and the Salish-Kootenai
tribe, hope eventually to be self-sustaining. They also seek to
have an endowment, run a K12 school, and provide distance
learning for the Flathead Reservation.
important as tribal programs such as Nizipuhwasin and Nkwusm are,
the current reality is that most Native youth are educated in public
schools, not tribal-run classrooms. Native educators say if traditional
languages are to be saved, public schools will have to play a key
In Washington's Marysville School District, Tulalip Elementary offers
one example of how to develop an integrated curriculum of language,
literature, and culture with Lushootseedthe language of the
Tulalip tribeat the center.
program began several years ago at the school, which is about 70
percent American Indian. Tribal members and district staff worked
together to develop a Tulalip-based classroom in the fourth grade.
A non-Native teacher teamed with a tribal language teacher to create
a new curriculum, which has now evolved into Lushootseed language
and culture instruction at every grade level.
curriculum introduced in schools today must meet state standards
and the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The
Tulalip-based curriculum in Marysville has managed to do that.
of many challenges for schools that already haveor would like
to startNative language programs is finding qualified teachers.
Some states have responded to that need by authorizing alternative
certification for Native language teachers. In Montana, Washington,
Oregon, and Idaho, the authority for granting certification to these
teachers has been delegated to tribal authorities. (In Alaska, this
authority is reserved for each school board or regional educational
a tribe has determined an applicant is fluent enough to qualify,
he or she is recommended for certification to the State Board of
Education. Upon certification, Native language teachers, usually
tribal elders, get the same pay and benefits and must meet the same
requirements for continuing education as other certified teachers.
have been some issues involving classroom management. "(That's)
no small matter in a room with more than a dozen teenagers,"
notes Julie Cajune. Even so, she thinks it's a good move. Without
certification, Native language teachers, who were paid at the level
of teacher aides, were devalued.
Montana Board of Public Education adopted its policy for alternative
certification, called Class 7 Specialist Certificate for Native
American Languages, in 1995. At that time one tribe identified only
five elders who were fluent in their Native language. Today, there
are 112 Class 7 teachers in Montana.
state adopted its alternative certification in 2003. It is a three-year
pilot program with the purpose of contributing "to the recovery,
revitalization, and promotion of First Peoples' languages."
By the end of the first year, seven teachers had been certified
under the program.
Teaching Native American children, whether the subject is reading,
math, or their indigenous language, presents a unique set of circumstances.
While very few Native youngsters speak the language of their ancestors,
their first language is not necessarily the English of their white
classmates, either. The first language of two-thirds of American
Indian youth today is Indian English, according to a research report
by Washington state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
and the Evergreen Center for Educational Improvement at Evergreen
State College in Olympia.
of the report, Magda Costantino and Joe St. Charles of Evergreen,
and Denny Hurtado of OSPI, describe Indian English as English dialects
used by American Indians that do not conform in certain ways to
standard English. Despite the differences, however, the dialects
"are nonetheless well-ordered and highly structured languages
that reflect the linguistic competencies that must underlie all
American Indian English, W.L. Leap provides important context for
the restoration of Native languages. He writes that distinctive
characteristics of Indian English what he calls "codes""derive,
in large part, from their close association with their speakers'
ancestral language traditions. In many cases, rules of grammar and
discourse from that tradition provide the basis for grammar and
discourse in these English codeseven in instances where the
speakers are not fluent in their ancestral language."
can be argued, then, that Indian English serves as a language bridge
between the past and present. Understanding the role and importance
of Indian English, however, may not be as big a hurdle as the larger
issues and prevailing attitudes about language use and instruction.
Many people believe that because English is the dominant language,
instruction should be in English and all students should learn its
proper usage. Disagreement about the role and importance of bilingual
education is a fact of life in many school districts, tossing up
one more barrier to public school efforts to become involved in
Native language revival.
Advocates of Native language revival programs point to research
that shows academic advantages for children who speak two languages.
Gina Cantoni, a language pedagogy professor at Northern Arizona
University, has written of "abundant evidence" that teaching
the home language does not interfere with the development of English
skills. To the contrary, she notes, instruction that "promotes
proficiency in one's first language also promotes proficiency in
the second language."
contends that "mastery of more than one linguistic code results
in a special kind of cognitive flexibility." Unfortunately,
she notes, the "special" abilities related to mastery
of more than one language are not covered by most tests used to
measure academic achievement.
reinforces the argument for expanding Native language instruction.
Even more compelling are the voices of Native American advocates,
from the students in Eva Boyd's class to the elders teaching youngsters
at Nkwusm and to longtime Montana educator Joyce Silverthorne.
a member of the Salish tribe of the Flathead Reservation in Montana,
has been a classroom teacher, college instructor, school board member,
program administrator on the reservation, and member of the Montana
Board of Public Education, where she worked for passage of the Montana
Class 7 certificate.
language and culture are linked in all societies, "what is
unique to Native Americans is that this is our homeland," says
Silverthorne. "There is no 'old country' to return to. When
language dies here, it dies forever."
founder and teacher Melanie Sandoval is committed to seeing that
doesn't happen. Now 28, she says she has been trying to learn the
language of her tribe as long as she can remember. She now learns
along with the children, thanks to the two elders who come into
the classroom six hours a day, five days a week. After years of
formal study, she is now learning useful, everyday phrases like
"blow your nose" and "jump down off that."
happening at the school is more than preserving the language. Sandoval
observes that preservation "is like having a bottle on the
shelf. We want to breathe life into the language, to speak it, and
pass it on to the next generation."
"Language nest" is defined in the proposed amendment to
the Native American Languages Act of 1990 as a site-based educational
families with children under age 7.
conducted through a Native American language for at least 700
hours per year per student.
the specific goal of strengthening, revitalizing, or re-establishing
a Native American language and culture as a living language and
culture of daily life.
According to language instruction experts, the best way to acquire
a second language is the same way you acquire a first languageimmersion
in a language-rich environment. Here are four principles of language
immersion or the "Natural Approach":
precedes production. The teacher focuses on a topic that interests
students, always uses the language she is teaching, and aids comprehension
with gestures, visuals, and real objects.
learn in stages, from a silent period of listening to trying a
single word, several words, phrases, andfinallysentences
and more complex conversation. The goal is to carry out a conversation
in the language. Focus on activity, not grammar.
a warm, friendly, welcoming classroom; use activities that are
interesting and relevant; encourage the expression of ideas, opinions,
a language takes time. Expect to spend about 500 hours in language
instruction to achieve a basic conversational proficiency.
From Stephen D. Krashen and Terrell D. Tracy, The Natural Approach:
Language Acquisition in the Classroom