Native Babel

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Thu Mar 24 19:05:41 UTC 2005

Speaking in (Native) Tongues

To save endangered languages, elementary schools across the Southwest
experiment with Native American language immersion programs

—By Diana West and Stacy Teicher,
Christian Science Monitor
March 24, 2005 Issue

Lost City Elementary School in Oklahoma is not the first school to offer
a Native American language immersion program to its students, but it is
one of the first public schools to do it. Diana West of The Christian
Science Monitor reports that Lost City Elementary now offers a Cherokee
language immersion program for three-year-olds, kindergartners, and
first graders. Next year the program will expand to include

In Lost City Elementary's voluntary program all courses are taught in
the Cherokee language and the teachers refer to the students by their
Indian names. The goal is to preserve the Cherokee language, which
Harry Oosahwee, the tribe's language project supervisor, believes will
die in one generation if something is not done immediately. West points
out that only an estimated 8,000 people currently speak Cherokee.

One of the reasons the Lost City Elementary program is unique is that it
demonstrates a state-sponsored departure from the United States'
institutional assimilation of Native American children. Starting in the
1800s, children were sent away to boarding schools where they were
prohibited from speaking their languages or wearing their traditional
clothing and hairstyles, says Stacy Teicher of The Christian Science
Monitor. It wasn't until the 1970s that Indian Nations won the right to
contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to control these government

Teicher says that the importance of native language and culturally
sensitive teaching is catching on in the Southwest also. In the
Flagstaff school district, Navajo language classes are offered.
Flagstaff High School has a panel of ten Native American academic
advisors that helps teachers with culturally sensitive subjects and
helps develop culturally relevant courses. They also offer an elective
Navajo history class after school. But even in Flagstaff, Native
American students still have to battle prejudice, and very little of
the mainstream curriculum touches on Indian history or culture.

Initially, Lost City's program was met with some resistance because
elders were concerned that children would be ridiculed (like they were
when they were kids) for speaking their native language at a public
school. However, the program is proving to not only serve as a way to
preserve the language, but also as a source of pride. One community
elder, in commenting about her great nephew, said: "Lane is learning
what it is to be Cherokee and to be proud."
-- Barb Jacobs

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