Is Language a Virus? Grappling with the study of indigenous languages

On Oct. 18, 2011, local members of Pueblo tribes congregated at the Institute of American Indian Arts to discuss the future of language education. Each Pueblo member raised issues of sustainability of their respective Pueblo languages. Each faces issues of losing that language due to the growing usage of the infectious English language.

Pueblo members met at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where in the fall of 2010, due to lack of funding and participation, IAIA ended its only indigenous language class, which taught the Navajo language.

The Institute of American Indian Arts has 403 students enrolled. Within that enrollment, 87 students are enrolled members of the Navajo Nation””Navajo students make up 22 percent of student enrollment. After combining the enrollment of Pueblo students, 13 Pueblo tribes are represented, which constitutes 10 percent of the student population at 42 enrolled students.

According to Dean of Students Ann Filmeyer, “There were just not enough students who enrolled to fill the classes.” She states that only “seven to 10 students were enrolled in each class.“

Thus, after years of low enrollment in the Navajo language course, Filmeyer said officials decided to close its indigenous language course.

It was once thought that indigenous languages should be taught at home at a young age, and that the community should teach its own children. This idea still has resonance.

Tammy Rahr (Cayuga Nation of New York), a local artist and senior-student of museum studies at IAIA, believes that foreign languages could be the way to success. She believes that incorporating languages such as Spanish, French, or Italian will benefit a student in their future education or business endeavors: “Teach indigenous language at home” she says. “Teach English first. Get more bang for your buck.”

Because IAIA lacks funding in language programs, Rahr believes incorporating romantic languages will help students succeed in the world and save IAIA money for language costs. She mentions the Rosetta Stone as a possible teaching tool for these languages.

Hayes A. Lewis, the director of the Center For Lifelong Education, mentions a student who will be attending IAIA in the spring of 2011 from abroad: “This student is African, he knows eight different languages. It’s typical to know more than just two languages. How is it that we, as Native Americans, not know more than just two languages?” Lewis promotes multiple lingual studies. Like Rahr, Lewis promotes online learning and the Rosetta Stone, as well.

Lewis continues to mention the development of his own community at the Zuni Pueblo. Because the U.S. government funds the tribal school system, the tribal schools must abide by the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which includes reporting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). In August of 2010, 86 out of 89 New Mexico districts did not make AYP. This affects all New Mexico schools, including tribal schools. As a multi-cultured state with multiple languages, educators struggle with learning patterns to make scores””this affects the Navajo, Pueblos and other indigenous communities within New Mexico.

As a result, indigenous students come to the Institute of American Arts hoping to learn about culture and art, and many have struggled with loss of culture and language. AYP does not affect their acceptance into college aptitude but has affected their cultural past.

When asked if, in lieu of offering Navajo, might IAIA offer indigenous language courses, Filmeyer notes that: “Pueblo speaking communities want to keep their language sacred. The community want their languages taught at home.”

Indeed, according to Jaime K Gaskin, program development officer of the Center for Lifelong Education, “Knowledge is sacred, and to build up a language ””such as the Pueblo languages””one must build up a language internally. The Pueblos allow their elders to be teachers. Times are changing, some elders are considering the usage of computers and technology to tell their stories and keep language nests alive within their community.”

Yet the Keres, Tewa, Towa, and Tiwa speaking tribes are at a standstill with sustaining their indigenous languages. Because many of the students attend public school, some tribes are allowing their sacred language to be taught in public schools””making their language to anyone accessible to their community.

Currently, there are two BFA programs at the Institute of American Indian Arts that require language requirements: Indigenous Studies and Museum Studies. If a student plans to venture toward tribal language, he or she must first enroll in the independent study course, then find a language program suitable to fit the requirements of IAIA. The student’s challenge is to create his or her own distant learning programs to gain a language-credited course. With the help of Steven Wall (Indigenous Studies) and Michelle McGeough (Museum Studies), each student’s distant learning teacher must check in with department heads to confirm their learning success.

Each student who partakes in this independent study course must take initiative in finding a language curriculum must meet the following criteria:

1. Tribe must have a language program.
2. They must be certified to teach.
3. They must have a curriculum.
4. The teacher must contact IAIA with the student’s progression.

According to Dean Filmeyer, there are approximately 89 to 90 different languages of different ethnic backgrounds in the student body of IAIA. Eighty-four of those ethnic languages are enrolled indigenous students. Six of these languages are of other descent. To fulfill the needs of the students who wish not to learn Navajo as a foreign language””“Independent study was the best possible solution.”

Distance learning has been the only solution for each student to learn his or her own language and to keep a language course available to the school. Should the Institute of American Indian Arts offer a language program for its students, such as BYU, UNM, and NAU, which offer a Native language program for its bigger Native population? Or should the institute just find its best solution in leaving indigenous languages to its tribes and family’s discretion?

According to the Pueblo members who gathered on the IAIA campus to discuss their language adaptation, bringing their languages into the school system is their last hope for survival of their language, as families and communities are becoming more and more colonized.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs must follow the federal AYP requirements or risk losing funding for its programs. This pushes the teaching of indigenous languages and cultural traditions out of the schools, and requires the pueblos to devise other ways to pass on Native traditions.

“Our tribes are trying to figure out a way to keep the language alive in our small communities,” says one member.

“We lose our kids during the summer,” says another member. A gentleman from Isleta claims it’s the reverse effect in their pueblo””they use games, bowling, and other activities to attract kids to attend their functions.

“Multi-cultural programs are being affected everywhere,” according to Lewis, “it took the Zuni community four years to create priority and control of its K””12 bilingual cultural program. We had to fight to take over the government controlled school systems and create a curriculum that will abide by their system.”

Like the local Pueblo tribes that are at a standstill with their language survival, the Institute of American Indian Arts language program stands quietly trying the best possible way to incorporate language back into a program with a dominating English-speaking population. This includes different avenues of learning indigenous teaching, such as incorporating language into activities like farming and medicinal knowledge of plants, where students do incorporate indigenous learning of language.

*The Pueblo members will reconvene their meeting in November to discuss the next step towards sustaining their languages.




Related Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.