[lg policy] Native Language Schools Are Taking Back Education
haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Apr 20 10:19:10 EDT 2018
Native Language Schools Are Taking Back Education
More than a century ago, the last fluent speakers of Wôpanâak passed away.
Now this school is working to revive the language.
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Schools Are Taking Back
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Abaki Beck <http://www.yesmagazine.org/@@also-by?author=Abaki+Beck> posted
Apr 19, 2018
For more than 150 years, the Wôpanâak language was silent. With no fluent
speakers alive, the language of the Mashpee Wampanoag people existed only
in historical documents. It was by all measures extinct. But a recently
established language school on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation in
Massachusetts is working to bring back the language.
The threat of extinction that faces the Wôpanâak language is not uncommon
for indigenous languages in the United States. Calculated federal policy,
not happenstance, led to the destruction of Native American languages such
But today, Native language schools are working to change that by
revitalizing languages that have been threatened with extinction.
In the 19th century, federal policy shifted from a policy of extermination
and displacement to assimilation. The passage of the Civilization Fund Act
<http://legisworks.org/congress/15/session-2/chap-85.pdf> in 1819 allocated
federal funds directly to education for the purpose of assimilation, and
that led to the formation of many government-run boarding schools. Boarding
schools were not meant to educate, but to assimilate.
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Tribal communities continue to be haunted by this history. As of April,
UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages
<http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/> listed 191 Native American
languages as “in danger” in the United States. Of these, some languages are
vulnerable—meaning that children speak the language, but only in certain
contexts—to critically endangered—meaning the youngest generation of
speakers are elderly.
Today, the education system in the United States fails Native American
students. Native students have the lowest high school graduation rat
<https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017144.pdf> of any racial group nationally,
according to the 2017 Condition of Education Report. And a 2010 report
shows that in the 12 states with the highest Native American population,
less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school per year.
By founding schools that teach in Native languages and center tribal
history and beliefs, tribal language schools are taking education back into
their own hands.
Mukayuhsak Weekuw: Reviving a silent language
On the Massachusetts coast just two hours south of Boston is Mukayuhsak
Weekuw, a Wôpanâak language preschool and kindergarten founded in 2015
<http://www.wlrp.org/project-history.html>. The school is working to
revitalize the Wôpanâak language. As one of the first tribes to encounter
colonists, the Mashpee Wampanoag faced nearly four centuries of violence
and assimilation attempts; by the mid 19th century
<http://www.wlrp.org/project-history.html>, the last fluent speakers of
Wôpanâak had died.
In the 1990s, Wampanoag social worker Jessie Little Doe Baird began to work
to bring the language back to her people. It began like this: More than 20
years ago, Baird had a series of dreams in which her ancestors spoke to her
in Wôpanâak. She says they instructed her to ask her community whether they
were ready to welcome the language home.
She listened, and in 1993 she sought the help of linguists and community
elders to begin to revitalize the language—elders like Helen Manning from
the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, with whom she would later co-found the
Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.
“Our languages embody our ancestors’ relationships to our homelands and to
one another across millennia.”
Baird found a lot of resources. To translate the Bible, colonists had
transcribed Wôpanâak to the Roman alphabet in the 1600s, which the
Wampanoag used to write letters, wills, deeds, and petitions to the
colonial government. With these texts, Baird and MIT linguist Kenneth Hale
established rules for Wôpanâak orthography and grammar, and created a
dictionary <http://www.wlrp.org/project-history.html> of 11,000 words.
In 2015, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project was ready to open the
Mukayuhsak Weekuw preschool. According to the school’s Project Director
Jennifer Weston, 10 students attended in the first year it opened, growing
to 20 in the current school year. As part of the language program, parents
or grandparents of students at the school are required to attend a weekly
language class to ensure that the youth can continue speaking the language
The curriculum is taught entirely in the Wôpanâak language, and it is also
grounded in tribal history and connection to the land. “Our languages
embody our ancestors’ relationships to our homelands and to one another
across millennia,” Weston says. “They explain to us to the significance of
all the places for our most important ceremonies and medicines. They tell
us who we are and how to be good relatives.”
In addition to language learning, the children also learn about gardening,
hunting, and fishing. They practice tribal ceremonies, traditional food
preservation, and traditional hunting and fishing practices. At Native
American language schools like Mukayuhsak Weekuw, students experience their
culture in the curriculum in a deeply personal and empowering way.
‘Aha Pūnana Leo: Overcoming policy barriers
Considering the violent history of America’s education system towards
Native Americans, it is perhaps unsurprising that policy barriers continue
to hinder contemporary language revitalization schools.
Federal policies are often misaligned with the reality of tribal
communities and language revitalization schools. Leslie Harper, president
of the advocacy group National Coalition of Native American Language
Schools and Programs, says schools often risk losing funding because they
lack qualified teachers who meet federal standards. But these standards are
paternalistic, notes Harper, who says that fluent language teachers at
Native schools are often trained outside of accredited teaching colleges,
which don’t offer relevant Native language teaching programs. These
teaching colleges don’t “respond to our needs for teachers in Indian
communities,” she says.
In Hawai’i, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo schools have had some success in overcoming
policy barriers like these. The schools have led the way for statewide and
national policy change in Native language education.
When the first preschool was founded in 1984, activists estimated that fewer
than 50 children
spoke Hawaiian statewide. Today, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo runs 21 language medium
schools serving thousands of students throughout the state, from preschool
through high school. Because of this success, emerging revitalization
schools and researchers alike look to ‘Aha Pūnana Leo as a model.
“We are beginning to see the long-term benefits of language revitalization.”
Nāmaka Rawlins is the director of strategic collaborations at ‘Aha Pūnana
Leo. Like Harper, she says that required academic credentialing burdened
the language preschools, which relied on fluent elders. This became an
issue in 2012 when kindergarten was made compulsory in Hawai’i, and
teachers and directors of preschools were required to be accredited. But
she, along with other Hawaiian language advocates, advocated for changes to
these state regulations to exclude Hawaiian preschools from the requirement
and instead accredit their own teachers as local, indigenous experts. And
they succeeded. “We got a lot of flack from the preschool community,” she
says. “Today, we provide our own training and professional development.”
One of the early successes of ‘Aha Pūnana Leo was removing the ban
<http://www.ahapunanaleo.org/images/files/HuliliVol3_Wilson.pdf> on the use
of Hawaiian language in schools, which had been illegal for nearly a
century. Four years later, in 1990, the passage of the Native American
Language Act affirmed that Native American children across the nation have
the right to be educated, express themselves, and be assessed in their
But according to Harper, progress still needs to be made before NALA is
fully implemented by the Education Department. Since 2016, Native American
language medium schools have been able to assess students
<https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/34/200.6> in their language. This
took years of advocacy by people like Harper, who served on the U.S.
Department of Education's Every Student Succeeds Act Implementation
Committee and pushed for the change.
While this is an important first step, Harper is concerned that because
language medium school assessments must be peer reviewed, low capacity
schools—or those that lack the technical expertise of developing
assessments that align with federal standards—will be burdened. And the
exemption doesn’t apply to high schools.
multiple language revitalization schools have found that students who
attend these schools have greater academic achievement than those who
attend English-speaking schools, including scoring significantly higher on
standardized tests. “We are beginning to see the long-term benefits of
language revitalization and language-medium education in our kids,” Harper
says. “But the public education system and laws are still reticent about us
developing programs of instruction for our students.”
Looking back, looking forward
A movement to revitalize tribal languages is underway. The success of ‘Aha
Pūnana Leo and promise of Mukayuhsak Weekuw are examples of communities
taking education into their own hands. When Native American students are
taught in their own language and culture, they succeed.
Weston says parents are eager for Mukayuhsak Weekuw to expand into an
elementary school, and in fall 2018, the school will include first grade in
addition to pre-school and kindergarten. It is a testament to the work and
vision of the Wampanoag that just two decades ago, their language was
silent, and today, they have a school that expands in size each year. “All
of our tribal communities have the capacity to maintain and revitalize our
mother tongues,” Weston says—no matter how daunting it may seem.
*Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said that Native
American language medium schools were not able to assess students in their
own language. Grades 3-8 have been able to do so since 2016*
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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