Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed Jun 29 19:31:20 UTC 2005

Languagee program preserves ancient language

ACOMITA - Six boys sit around a table with leather and metal tools piled
in front of them.

Across the room, five girls gather around another table topped with
sewing machines and a rainbow of fabric. In this makeshift classroom at
the Acoma Senior Citizens Center, the Acoma Language Retention Program
brings together young and old tribal members in traditional activities
that will enable Acoma culture to be preserved and passed on to future

A little over eight years ago, the Acoma Language Retention Program was
started as a way of teaching the Keresan language to several
generations of non-Keresan speaking Acoma children. Ninety youngsters

Acoma tribal member and director of the language program, Vina Leno,
said her past four years with the program have been the best of her 33
years serving the Acoma people. "This program has been the most
rewarding, and I truly enjoy working with our community members," she

Leno said the program began back in 1997 when two women, Dr. Christine
Simms from the University of New Mexico Department of Linguistics, and
Donna Boynton, a certified teacher from Acoma, got together with a
group of elders and discussed what losing the Keresan language might
mean for the future of the pueblo.

"The elders agreed that if we do not teach the language to the young
ones, we will eventually lose our language and then we will not have a
culture," said Leno. She said the first group of students was assembled
in what was called an "immersion camp."

Leno said the feedback from the students that first summer was extremely
positive, and the students asked if they could study Keresan again every

According to Leno, the following year the two women submitted their
first planning grant to the Administration for Native Americans. The
tribe was awarded $50,000 to survey the Acoma community about the
importance of developing a language-retention program.

Leno said the tribal members responded favorably to a community-based
language program. "The results showed that a lot of our young people
wanted to speak the language," she said.

The program has continued to hold an immersion camp every summer, said
Leno, focusing on a different age group each year. She said some
children came back to the program and told their teachers that when
they tried to speak Keresan at home, their parents did not understand
the language. "Our program director at the time felt that there was
also a need to teach the parents," said Leno.

The director went on to explain that the program had to educate the
elders about new language teaching methods that were being used to
teach the Acoma students. "Our people used to learn the language by
talking to their parents or grandparents, but now things are
different," said Leno. She added that not all parents and grandparents
could speak the language fluently enough to teach other family members.

Acoma language teachers are now certified by the pueblo and have access
to the Cibola County school system where they teach classes at
Laguna-Acoma and Cubero, and also at the Sky City Community School. "We
also discovered that one group that was not being helped was the high
school aged student," said Leno.

Leno said the program has had tribal members come to the program wanting
to teach Keresan, but they discover that just being able to speak the
language does not mean they can teach it. "They find out there are
lesson plans to develop, and they say that is not how we were taught
the language," Leno said.

Leno said it was a little difficult to get the elders to understand that
the kids of today are learning in a classroom setting and that new
methods can be applied when teaching an ancient language.

The Acoma Retention Program currently has 11 students and is conducting
classes in moccasin making for the boys and traditional dress making
for the girls. From 2-4:30 p.m., the students - with their Keresan
names pinned to their shirts - take instruction from Acoma elders,
learning the names of their "tools" in the Keresan dialect.

"I like it, it is fun and I get to make my own dress instead of asking
someone else to make me one," said Doreena Howeya, a student in the
program. Howeya said making the dresses is not hard because the
teachers have been making it fun to learn.

Leno said some elders were also concerned that the students would not
benefit from learning the old ways when they venture beyond the
reservation. "Here is the western way and the traditional way. The
students don't need either way, they need both ways in order to survive
and identify themselves as Acoma people," Leno said.

By Will Kie

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