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Phoenix Indian Center to start Diné language classes for children


by LaNell Shirley - Special to the Navajo Times


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PHOENIX - The city of Phoenix is not a place you would expect to find Navajo language classes, but the Indian Center is planning to expand its classes to include children in August.

The Phoenix Indian Center has seen a rise in popularity among the urban Navajo community. In 2000, the center expanded its services to include Navajo language and culture classes that are offered throughout the year.

With recent funding from the Navajo Nation and several grants, the center's education department has employed four permanent staff - cultural specialist Freddie Johnson, language instructor Rachel Antonio, elder assistant Richard Beyal, and education specialist David Frazier.

The staffers were hired to develop a curriculum for beginning and intermediate Navajo language classes as well as Navajo literacy classes.

"While we have programs that are structured from traditional curriculum to non-traditional curriculum, we strive to provide families with a connection to their mother, the Navajo Nation," said Roberta Howard, program director.

"Her children may live in different areas, but they still need to maintain that connection with her."

Language instructor Rachel Antonio is a graduate of the Diné College and Arizona State University Diné Teacher Education Program.

She instructs beginning, intermediate, and advanced adult Navajo language classes. Though the classes are not officially accredited, they are formally structured with regular class work, homework assignments and tests.

"Teaching the classes is challenging because they are constantly being revitalized," Antonio said. "But, I enjoy it. It is something I desire to do."

Cultural specialist Freddie Johnson instructs intergenerational family classes where family members learn the Navajo language and culture through real-life situations and environments.

Johnson favors an informal approach when working with families. Family members sometimes play "Navajo Jeopardy" and "Navajo Pictionary" and are encouraged to interact with one another as they would at home.

"I teach the parents and the children, the component of a family", Johnson said. "It is a good way of reaching the children and reminding the parents that they are the first teachers."

Although staffers are busy with classes, they often host cultural events and activities for families. This past winter, the center hosted the Navajo shoe game and often invited guests from the reservation.

"On several occasions, I've had a few elders come visit the classes," Johnson said. "I once had an 83-year-old grandma from Lukachukai come in with her grandchildren and tell me that the Navajo language program was a good thing to do down here."

Program director Howard promises that the establishment of the classes is just the beginning.

Among its many goals, the program hopes to establish a distance-learning program using modern technology and build partnerships with Phoenix school districts that have high concentrations of Native American students.

However, the program's biggest goal is to become an extension of Diné College.

"There is a need for such an extension among the community here both educationally and career-wise," said Howard. "It would be a wonderful source of revenue for the college and would serve as an educational exchange between urban and reservation areas."

This fall, the program will welcome some big changes. Currently, staff members are hard at work to expand the center's focus to include young children and are eagerly developing a curriculum that includes games, songs and hands-on activities.

The center will begin hosting Navajo language and culture classes for children this upcoming August.

"We're excited about the children's classes, it will be something new," said Antonio. "We want to start focusing on the children because they are going to be our leaders one day and it is important that they know their native language."

"Culture and language keeps us happy and whole", said Howard. "Without it, we lose our self-identity. The language is the spirit of the people and our program hopes to help keep the spirit alive."

The city of Phoenix is home to nearly 80,000 Native American from across the United States.

Although Phoenix is attractive for families and those seeking a college education or a change of lifestyle, many within the urban Native community need language and cultural ties, job training, educational resources, and opportunities to socialize with fellow Native Americans.

The Phoenix Indian Center was established to serve urban Indians in need of such services.

Founded in 1947, the center provided vendors with a location to sell and buy arts and crafts and served as a place where the Native community could receive messages, shower, and connect with other Natives.

Today, the center has become a fully functioning, multi-faceted organization that seeks to "promote the social and economic self-sufficiency of the American Indians living of Maricopa County."

The center offers child-care services, family counseling, case management and learning circles. Native Workforce Services, one of the center's most utilized resources, provides employment and job-training assistance through its on-site Adult Learning Center.

Free GED classes and seminars are available through the program. In addition to employment assistance, Native Workforce Services features a "resource room" where Internet access, printer access, and fax machines are available for use for those that qualify for the program.

For more information on the Phoenix Indian Center and its services, please call 602-264-6768 or visit their offices at 2601 North Third Street Suite 100, Phoenix, Arizona 85004.

Phoenix Indian Center, Inc.
The mission of the Phoenix Center, Inc. is to promote the social and economic self-sufficiency of the American Indians living in Maricopa County.

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