In this blog post, WestEd experts Barbara Jones and Niki Sandoval share insights from their extensive work with state Indian education directors. This post examines previous state efforts to integrate students’ Native languages into their learning.
“Since I started learning my language, I feel more connected to my community – my people, our doings, our land, especially my Great Grandma.”
– Tewa High School youth (2009)
Why is learning language important for Indigenous students?
One of the most significant factors supporting students to feel a sense of belonging in school and believe in themselves as learners and knowers is the degree to which curriculum, instruction, and patterns of communication in school are inclusive of students’ home cultures and languages. When students have positive learner and knower identities and feel a sense of belonging in their schools, they are more likely to achieve academically. For Indigenous students, a key lever in supporting this goal is supporting the use of Native languages and cultures in school. When Indigenous students receive this culturally and linguistically sustaining instruction, they are more likely to:
- Have enhanced self-esteem
- Form healthy identities
- Utilize self-direction and political action
- Display more respect for tribal Elders
- Exert positive influence in their tribal communities
- Exhibit constructive classroom behavior and engagement
- Achieve academically at higher rates
While scholars for years have debated the relationship between language, cognition, and culture, it is fair to say that these three factors reinforce and shape one another. Language is often thought of as a key process in developing one’s worldview. For many Indigenous cultures, oral traditions are also a primary means to communicate knowledge and histories across generations. As such, intergenerational transmission of Native culture is significantly strengthened by increasing language knowledge among youth.
With this in mind, integrating Native languages in schools serves the dual role of advancing individual students’ well-being as learners and knowers and supports cultural wellness at a community level. Tribal nations also put a high value on maintaining and revitalizing their Indigenous languages. Due to the fact that federally-recognized tribes are sovereign nations (which includes educational sovereignty), meeting Tribal education goals for their young people is a top priority for K-12 education institutions serving Indigenous students.
What is the history and current context of Indigenous language education in the U.S.?
Today, many Tribal nations are working hard, but also have a long way to go, to maintain their Native languages. The challenge is primarily due to detrimental U.S. government policies and practices that were in place for hundreds of years, extending up until the 1970s. These are practices of genocide, dislocation, and the separation of children from their families and communities via mandatory boarding school attendance (where speaking Native languages was prohibited). These government practices made the intergenerational transmission of Native language almost impossible, resulting in a significant loss of language knowledge. Many existing Native languages are currently endangered.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, recently launched an investigation into the effects of Indian boarding schools on Indian children and their communities. The volume 1 report from the investigation, submitted in May, 2022, opens with a letter that states,
“This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. It identifies the Federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system – with more site discoveries and data expected as we continue our research…
This report also presents an opportunity for us to reorient our Federal policies to support the revitalization of Tribal languages and cultural practices. This reorientation of Federal policy is necessary to counteract nearly two centuries of Federal policies aimed at the destruction of Tribal languages and cultures. In turn, we can help begin a healing process for Indian Country and the Native Hawaiian Community, and the United States, from the Alaskan tundra to the Florida everglades, and everywhere in between.”
Consistent with this messaging, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, also explicitly states that schools currently receiving federal funds should be “designed to be responsive to the language and cultural needs of the Indian students” and “support Native American language programs” and “culturally related activities.” Thus culturally sustaining and revitalizing education for Indigenous students, including support of Native languages, is the current federal (and Tribal) mandate.
For states, districts, and schools attempting to reach these goals, it represents a dramatic paradigm shift from past practices and ideologies. There is also a need to extend the knowledge among many educators and leaders about their Indigenous students’ cultures and communities to enhance their commitment to work toward the current equity-focused mandate. To better understand what steps can be taken, the next article in this series explores the state role in this work and offers some examples of practice to support Indigenous language education.
- Student responses gathered by the Indigenous Language Institute.
- Sapir and Whorf, recognized the close relationship between language and culture, concluding that it was not possible to understand or appreciate one without knowledge of the other. (Wardhaugh, 2002, p. 220).
- The topic of language and culture learning is a frequent theme that has emerged in conversations among State Education Agency (SEA) Indian Education Directors participating in a monthly community of practice. The Region 15 and Region 13 Comprehensive Centers partner to facilitate these state leader connections. The Comprehensive Centers (CCs) develop and implement capacity-building technical assistance to support state education agencies (SEAs ). Region 15 CC serves Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Region 13 CC serves New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the Bureau of Indian Education.