Protecting Native American Languages and Culture

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I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.  This is the last in our series of reports about efforts to keep traditional ways alive.  Today we tell about attempts to preserve Native American cultures and languages.

In December two thousand six, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act became an American law.  United States Representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico wrote the bill to help stop American Indian languages from disappearing.  She says languages are an important part of American heritage and, once lost, will never be recovered.

The purpose of the law is to help keep Native American languages alive through language immersion programs.  In immersion programs, the native language is used most of the time to teach different subjects and to communicate with students.

Federal money will be provided to teach endangered languages to tribal members, especially children, who do not speak their native language.  Native American programs called "language nests," survival schools, and restoration programs will compete for the three-year grants.  Tribes can receive money to expand existing programs and to create new programs.

To receive federal money, language nests must provide language teaching and childcare for at least ten children under the age of seven.  They also must offer classes in the native language to parents of the students.

Language survival schools have to provide at least five hundred hours of teaching in a native language to each of at least fifteen students.  Survival schools also must provide teacher training.

Language restoration programs must provide at least one Native American language program for the community and train teachers of such languages.  The restoration programs also must develop Native American language teaching materials.

Willard Gilbert is the president of the National Indian Education Association, known as NIEA.  NIEA works with all tribes to make sure the educational and cultural needs of Native American students are met. Mr. Gilbert says the Esther Martinez Native Languages Preservation Act should help create new speakers of languages that are dying out.

He says there were one hundred seventy-five Native American languages still spoken in nineteen ninety-six.  However only twenty of these languages will still be spoken by the year two thousand fifty without urgent help to keep them alive.

Representative Wilson says native languages were very important to Esther Martinez.  She says passage of the law helps to honor her and her work.

Esther Martinez was a Tewa language teacher and storyteller.  She lived in northern New Mexico at San Juan Pueblo, now known by its Tewa name, Ohkay Owingeh.  Mrs. Martinez worked for years to preserve the Tewa language spoken in six of the northern New Mexico pueblos.  She was honored in two thousand six by the National Endowment for the Arts for her language work and storytelling.  She died in a car accident on the way home from receiving the award.  She was ninety-four.

The National Endowment for the Arts called Mrs. Martinez a national treasure.  It said Esther Martinez had been a keeper of the language that was the center of Pueblo expression and identity.

Esther Martinez grew up in a community where storytelling was the only way of passing on knowledge.  The Tewa language was spoken, not written.  Mrs. Martinez began to learn to write Tewa in the nineteen sixties when she was fifty-four.  She took some college classes and began teaching the language to children in the San Juan school.  She wrote a San Juan Tewa language dictionary that was published in nineteen eighty-three.

In two thousand three, "My Life in San Juan Pueblo, Stories of Esther Martinez" was published.  The book contains stories about her life and traditional Tewa teaching stories.  Tessie Naranjo of Santa Clara Pueblo was a friend of Esther Martinez for many years.  In a foreword to the book Ms. Naranjo explains that their people come from a tradition that values the music of language.  In Tewa, she says, the words sing as they are spoken; they create images.  She says the stories in the book honor this love of language.

In "My Life in San Juan Pueblo," Mrs. Martinez explains about life when she was a child.  She tells about taking care of sheep, grinding corn, and helping an old man who took care of animals.  She tells about traveling by horse and wagon. And she tells how she got her name, Blue Water, the English version of her Tewa name.

Mrs. Martinez learned most of the traditional teaching stories from her grandfather.  In her book she writes: "You who have grandparents to talk to are so lucky, because I treasure my grandparents and the things that I have learned from them.  My grandfather was a storyteller.  Indian people get their lessons from stories they were told as children.  So a lot of our stories are learning experiences."

Tessie Naranjo says storytelling connects Pueblo people to their past.  Stories told by older people in the community taught about community values, correct behavior and relationships with other people.

In nineteen eighty-eight, Esther Martinez began telling the traditional Tewa stories in English.  These stories often involve animals and imaginary creatures. Sue-Ellen Jacobs was a professor at the University of Washington.  She worked with Esther Martinez for many years recording her stories and developing CDs for the Tewa Language Project.  She says stories serve both a religious and everyday purpose in the pueblo.

The Northern Pueblos Institute is part of Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.  Tribal leaders began the Institute about fifteen years ago.  They wanted to create a center at the college level for Pueblo people to do research and take classes.  Tessie Naranjo and Sue-Ellen Jacobs have been directors of the Institute for about three years.  One of the programs the Institute offers is for language teachers in the northern New Mexico pueblos.  They teach children of all ages in area schools and adults at night.  The teachers knew the language but had problems with classroom management.

So the Northern Pueblos Institute decided to try to help them.  Now, the teachers meet at Northern New Mexico College to share ideas and learn from each other about ways to be effective teachers.

Through the Northern Pueblos Institute, Ms. Naranjo and Ms. Jacobs have developed a new program called Pueblo Indian Studies.  It is a two-year college degree program designed to protect the culture of Pueblo Indian people.

It offers classes such as Agricultural Practices Among Pueblo Indians, Native American Literature and Plants and Animals of the Tewa World.  Tessie Naranjo says some of the young parents in the program want their children to learn the old stories from their communities.  So in an independent study class they will be able to work with Sue-Ellen Jacobs to create CDs of traditional stories told at least in part in Tewa.

Ms. Jacobs says the Pueblo Indian Studies program is trying to support members of the Pueblo communities to help their cultures and languages survive.  However, she says, the program is also seeking students who are not from the Pueblos so they can understand the traditions and culture of the Pueblo people.

Sue-Ellen Jacobs says the community school at Ohkay Ohwingeh is continuing Esther Martinez's efforts to keep the Tewa language alive.  She says that although the school does not have an immersion program, almost everyone who teaches or works there speaks Tewa.  That means the children hear the language used all day.

Tessie Naranjo says it is important to create new language speakers at the college level, the community level and the individual level.  Everyone must get involved, she says, because without new speakers of native languages, the cultures will disappear.

This program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano and produced by Mario Ritter.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can find the other parts of this series at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: Protecting Native American Languages and Culture
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