Return of the Native

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Compared with the chaotic halls outside, Johnson Brown's Navajo language classroom is an island of serenity at Chinle High School.

The windowless room seems almost womblike, soothed by the soft sounds of a Navajo flute recording in the background. The language spoken here is one that many of the students have heard in their homes all their lives. And Brown, who himself spoke only the native language until he entered school in the 3rd grade, presides over the classroom with a dignified, gentle calm.

There's a lot to learn in this classroom, given the complexity of the language. The walls are covered with posters of shapes, numbers, and animals labeled in Navajo, while Navajo sentences fill up the blackboard. The room's four computers have also been programmed so that students can type in the Navajo alphabet, with its elaborate series of accent marks.

But what sets this class and its mission apart is the sense that it is a sanctuary of sorts for a native language and culture that is precious to its people. And at the head of the class is Brown, one of the home-grown teachers the reservation is cultivating--and counting on--to preserve Navajo traditions that might otherwise be forgotten.

For many years, children on the reservation were sent to government-run or church-run boarding schools, where they were forbidden even to speak in Navajo. As recently as a generation ago, Navajo teachers were a rarity, and Navajo language classes were unheard of on the reservation.

All that has changed in recent years with efforts by the Navajo Nation and outside groups to increase the number of Navajo teachers to help preserve the language and culture of their heritage.

The Navajo crusade happens to parallel a larger national movement to recruit minority teachers whom, experts believe, have a better chance of reaching children of the same race or ethnicity.

That's why the Navajo Nation's endeavor caught the attention of the New York City-based Ford Foundation in 1991. The foundation, which had embarked on a $25 million minority teacher education initiative, helped the tribe launch the Navajo Nation Ford Teacher Education Program. Working with six local southwestern colleges and universities, the collaboration has enabled Navajo teachers' aides to study their native language and earn a bachelor's degree in teacher education.

As the program's graduates, such as Brown, enter teaching positions on the reservation, the Ford seed money is ending. But the Navajo Nation, determined to prepare its own teachers, has vowed to continue this effort. At stake for the tribe, after all, is nothing less than a way of life.

Children growing up on Indian reservations are part of a Native American population that has suffered disproportionately from poverty and unemployment, as well as a host of other social ills including alcoholism and drug abuse.

According to the American Indian College Fund, most reservations face unemployment rates of 60 percent or more. The Denver-based nonprofit fund-raising organization also notes that only a small number of Indian nations run gaming operations. And even most of those generate revenues that are insufficient to finance needs in health clinics, water systems, job training, elderly care, and education.

Exacerbating the already grim conditions on many reservations is the high dropout rate among Native American students. A nationally representative longitudinal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that out of a cohort of students who were first surveyed in 1988 in the 8th grade, 16.9 percent of the American Indians had dropped out as of 1994. Their dropout rate was higher than that of all other minority groups, according to the survey.

Nationwide, several groups have taken action to address the scarcity of Native Americans teaching on the reservations. For example, last October, the Philip Morris Companies Inc. granted $200,000 for teacher-training and -development programs at nine tribal colleges. Those teacher training grants, coordinated through the college fund, aimed to increase the number of special education and native-language courses offered at the colleges. The grants were also intended to improve the often negative attitudes on reservations toward the teaching profession that are a holdover from the church and government boarding schools that were seen as the destroyers of Navajo culture.

On the Navajo reservation, the social and education statistics for the 172,400 people there are not much brighter than on other reservations. The unemployment rate fluctuates between 38 percent and 50 percent, according to Diné College, formerly known as Navajo Community College, and more than 56 percent of the Navajos live in poverty, with a per capita income of $4,106. Although many work in retail trades, construction, and professional services, the education system is the biggest source of jobs.

Yet, in 1990, according to the Navajo Nation, 36.4 percent of its people 25 and older had completed less than a 9th grade education. And while 17 percent of the people in that age group had completed some college, only 2.9 percent had earned a bachelor's degree or higher.

The paucity of formally educated role models extends to the classroom. As of 1990, according to Navajo Nation officials, only 20 percent of the 6,000 certified teachers on the reservation were natives. Many of the non-Navajo teachers come for a short time and then leave the reservation altogether. In contrast, the reservation's roughly 1,000 teachers' aides are almost all Navajo.

In 1991, Peterson Zah, then-president of the Navajo Nation, launched a challenge to graduate 1,000 certified Navajo teachers by the end of 1997. The Ford Foundation's minority teacher training initiative became one strategy in reaching this goal.

Six colleges and universities teamed up with the Navajo Nation to work on the program: in Arizona, Diné College in Tsaile, Prescott College in Prescott, and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff; in Colorado, Fort Lewis College in Durango and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley; and in New Mexico, the University of New Mexico at Gallup.

Under the program, aspiring teachers who have some college-credit hours and speak Navajo study part-time at the participating colleges. The participants receive tuition assistance as well as a $250 stipend per term to cover transportation, child care, books, and miscellaneous expenses.

In addition to their teacher education classes, the students are required to take 17 hours of Navajo language courses offered by Diné College, which is known for curricula based on traditional knowledge and cultural ideals.

The Navajo language requirement is the most distinctive, as well as the most useful, part of the program, say many of its participants. They believe that they communicate better with the students when they speak to them in a familiar language.

Doris Davis, a Navajo-Ford program graduate who teaches 7th and 8th grade English at Chinle Junior High School, says she informally surveyed her students and found that they understood her classes better when she explained ideas in both Navajo and English.

"A lot of times, the Navajo children get lost," she says. "I see it in their faces, and I switch over [to Navajo] and say, 'This is what I'm trying to say to you.'"

Her testimony is no surprise in light of statistics provided by the Navajo Nation: 82 percent of Indians age 5 and older on the reservation speak the native language at home. The Navajo language can be heard almost everywhere on the reservation--from casual conversations to broadcasts from the local country-music station.

Yet, Johnson Brown, whose class focuses on learning to read and write in Navajo, sees a cultural imperative to preserve what might not otherwise be formally taught. "When I went to school, there was no Navajo class, and all of my teachers were non-Indians," says Brown, who was a security guard at Chinle High School before he became a teacher.

"Our language is fading," he says. Some of his students speak the language fluently, he notes, but don't know how to read and write in Navajo. "I want to be there to try to give some information to the kids."

Brown and Davis' home base of Chinle, one of the larger towns on the reservation, rests at the mouth of the expansive and verdant Canyon de Chelly, the site of farmland that has anchored families there for generations.

It lies nearly in the center of the massive Navajo reservation, which encompasses 25,351 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Throughout the reservation, the scenery--sculptured sandstone formations and canyons, low hills, mountains, and prairies--is breathtaking but desolate. Small outposts are scattered few and far between, and drives of several hours are not uncommon to travel from one town to another.

The remote homesites of many families, combined with the strong ties of the people to the land, make travel and relocation for higher education difficult for many students.

The ties may be even tighter for program participants who tend to be older and have family responsibilities. According to a recent report, 88 percent are female, 82 percent have children, and their average age is 39.

But the Navajo-Ford collaborative has strived to make the logistics easier for them. Classes are offered in many cases on satellite campuses near students' homes, schedules are flexible and individually designed, and most courses are scheduled in the evenings or on weekends.

One program graduate, Tom Chee, says he could not imagine being an "urban person" and going away to school. He earned his degree from Fort Lewis College, through courses offered at the Diné College branch campus in Shiprock, N.M., in the northeast corner of the reservation. At 8,900 people, it is the most populous town on the reservation.

"I raise horses and cattle and things like that, and I can't conceive of leaving them," says Chee, a teacher at Shiprock Northwest High School, an alternative school in Shiprock. "If I went that route, I probably would have dropped my plan to be a teacher."

The on-site classes make a big difference for many Navajo students, says Gary Knight, an education professor at Fort Lewis College and the coordinator of the Navajo-Ford program at that institution. On-campus graduation rates for Navajo students sink as low as 10 percent, he says, while the graduation rate of Navajo students in his college's reservation-based programs are about 85 percent. Of course, locale may not account for the entire difference. The students taking courses on the reservation are generally older and have already made up their minds to pursue a teaching profession, he says.

Another partner, Prescott College, takes great pains to make up for the distance and travel hurdles students face in continuing their education, says Carol Perry, the academic adviser at Prescott's campus in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. The school allows students to arrange many of their classes one-on-one with local instructors, often teachers with master's degrees working in local elementary and secondary schools.

Even for reservation-based classes, however, most students have to log lengthy travel time in a car. Although the Navajo Nation runs a bus along the roughly 25 miles between Window Rock to the University of New Mexico at Gallup, that service doesn't fully meet all of students' transportation needs.

"It's not like there's a mass-transit system," says Pat H. Stall, the coordinator of the education program at the University of New Mexico at Gallup. "The time on the road, you just do it out here, but it does provide for some difficulties."

Other barriers, perhaps, may be greater to surmount than the logistical ones. Many prospective teachers must deal with a lack of support from families, particularly from those members who are skeptical of the role classroom teachers have played in the lives of many Native Americans.

Prescott College's Perry estimates that only about one-third of her students have the backing of their families, stemming in large part from a perception shaped by the boarding schools of the past. "Part of it is, traditionally, education was the 'weapon of choice' to destroy the culture and the language," says Perry.

"The parents of my students went through that kind of a system; my students, as well, went through part of that," Perry adds. "There isn't a lot of belief that education can do good things because it's brought a lot of social disruption in the past to families."

These days, about 80 percent of the reservation's more than 74,000 students attend public schools that operate under the state policies of Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah. The other 20 percent attend Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, which are financed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Some BIA schools have entered into grant or contract status, which offers reservation officials more autonomy and control.

Most schools on the reservation are also a far cry from the boarding schools of the past. It's not unusual, for example, to see Navajo words, phrases, and sentences written on blackboards or posted on walls.

At Mesa Elementary School in Shiprock, with a student body that is about 98 percent Navajo, it's easy to spot the Indian influence right away. On a large piece of paper stretched across the main hall is a "clan" chart, in which students write down the name of the Navajo family branch to which they belong. "Hadoonee Nili?" reads another sign, meaning, "What is your clan?"

Glojean Todacheene, the principal and one of a small number of Navajo administrators, prides herself on her heritage. And she's made strides in hiring Navajo teachers, overcoming some initial skepticism from Navajo parents who had the opposite fear of parents that were distrustful of Anglo-run schools: Some of these other parents had only known Anglo teachers and assumed they would teach their children better. Currently, about half the teachers at Mesa Elementary are Navajo.

"It wasn't until the late '60s that you saw one or two Navajo teachers, and now you hear children saying they want to become a teacher or a principal," she says. "If we're telling tribal people to be self-sufficient, and one of the major employers is the school system, it should be available to them as a job option rather than someone coming from the rest of the 49 states."

At Mesa, it seems, the major complaint of Native American teachers is simply that they can't find enough classroom material printed in Navajo.

Marilyn Deal, a 4th grade Navajo teacher and Ford program graduate there, teams up with an Anglo teacher so that she can teach the native language to his students while he teaches science to her students. In her mathematics class, students perform addition and subtraction and are also responsible for writing out the numerical names in Navajo.

Deal, who is a grandmother of four, says she struggles to find materials that are relevant--or at least identifiable--to her students, many of whom have never left Shiprock. Too often, she says, she encounters materials with "East Coast" terms like "skyscraper'' that she needs to explain to the children.

Another Navajo teacher at Mesa, Nona Johnson, teaches a class for emotionally disturbed students in the 2nd to 5th grades. She says that brushing up on her Navajo language through the classes she took as part of the Navajo-Ford program has helped her reach parents and grandparents. Her students' situations require frequent meetings with parents, or, in some cases grandparents acting as caretakers, many of whom speak Navajo.

And the students respond better in that language as well, she has found. Tell a misbehaving student to "cut it out,'' and it may not register, she says. "But when you say it in Navajo, somehow it clicks."

Still, that's not to say all Ford program graduates teach classes that focus exclusively on the Navajo identity.

For example, Darrell Clauschee's 6th grade classroom at Chinle Elementary School practically bursts with Japanese art and culture. A Japanese zodiac chart, origami creations, and paper fish and kites hang around the room.

Learning origami--the Japanese art of folding paper into designs--helps the students listen and develop good hand-eye coordination, explains Clauschee, a former substitute teacher. And the Navajo culture seems to share at least one aspect with the Japanese culture--a respect for elders, which appears to be a primary component of Clauschee's classroom. "They understand that I'm an elder person; they give me respect," he says, as students file into his classroom and wait for him to finish his conversation with a visitor. "I do the same thing right back to them."

In a report issued last year, Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization, contended that programs that help paraprofessionals earn their teaching credentials can be an effective way to create a diverse and culturally responsive teaching force. The Navajo-Ford initiative was featured in the report.

David Haselkorn, the president of the organization, says that paraprofessionals who become teachers can serve as good role models, especially for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. "That's one of the really strong parts of good paraeducator-to-teacher projects, like the Navajo Nation Ford Teacher Education Program," he says. "These teachers implicitly say, 'I can do it, you can do it too.'"

From the tribe's perspective, the Ford Foundation also brought a much-needed credibility to its efforts to train more Navajo teachers.

For one thing, the funding, which totaled almost $3.5 million over six years, helped the Navajo Nation to set up an office of teacher education, which will continue even when the Ford money runs out next March. For another, program organizers say, the Ford program marked the first time that the Navajo administrators were able to call the shots in telling colleges and universities what they wanted out of a program.

"Typically, foundations give grants to institutions," says Joseph Aguerrebere, a program officer with the Ford Foundation. But by giving the money directly to the Navajo Nation, he says, the power relationship was different. "The Navajo Nation could sit at the table with these institutions and say, 'How can we work together?'"

By having more control, the Indian leaders were able to stipulate certain conditions for the universities for its many nontraditional students, such as bringing courses and services to the reservation.

Annual reviews indicate that the program has been fruitful. It has graduated 199 students through last year, with more students in the pipeline for graduation this year and next. Moreover, the retention rate has averaged 90 percent since 1992.

But one issue continues to plague program administrators: standardized tests that states require of new teachers. The Pre-Professional Skills Test, or PPST, which serves as an entrance exam into teacher education programs, and the National Teacher Examination, or NTE, have stymied some Navajo students.

The controversy over the usefulness of these standardized tests for Native Americans mirrors a national debate launched on behalf of minority teachers by those who claim that the exams are racially and culturally biased. For those who dispute the claims of bias, it also raises the issue of the price to be paid for putting a less qualified, albeit more culturally attuned, teacher in the classroom.

The consortium colleges have agreed not to require the PPST of students. That's important, says Elmer J. Guy, the deputy director of the Navajo Nation's division of education, who insists that the PPST does not guarantee that individuals who pass the exam will necessarily be better teachers.

As for the widely used NTE, it continues to be a thorn in the side for some of the prospective Navajo teachers. The Arizona institutions in the consortium do not require the NTE. The New Mexico education department requires the NTE for licensure, but permits students who do not pass the exam to prepare a portfolio and present it before a state review panel as an alternative licensure procedure. Colorado's Fort Lewis College designed its program to meet New Mexico state requirements.

Echoing the arguments of many minority groups who perform poorly on standardized tests, the Navajo organizers say that the test is culturally biased. But the Navajo administrators also say that the test, particularly with its aural portion, discriminates against bilingual Native American students who hear a question in English, translate it to themselves in Navajo, and then translate the answer back into English.

Anita Tsinnajinnie, the executive director of the Navajo education division, argues that a bilingual teacher who passes the exam is probably twice as capable as a monolingual teacher who passes it. For that matter, she says that although the program is geared toward growing their own teachers, a teacher who graduates from the program could teach anywhere.

Roxanne Gorman, the director of the Navajo Nation's office of teacher education programs, adds that the Navajo-Ford program students haven't gotten any special exceptions. They have had to meet the same requirements of any other student at the respective colleges and universities. "We don't want it watered down; we don't want diploma mills. The students have to meet the institutions' requirements," she says.

Recruiting New Teacher's Haselkorn sees a straightforward solution to the test-taking issue: If the tests are found to be inappropriate or biased, get rid of them, he says. Otherwise, find ways to help the students who are qualified in every other way to learn the test-taking skills and other information that will enable them to jump through that final hoop.

With that approach, says Haselkorn, the teachers who can add much-needed diversity to the schools won't be barred from the system. "They are bringing added value to the school culture and the classroom that may not be recognized by standardized tests," he says. "That's not to say that they should not have to meet the same qualifications that other teachers do, but I think we tend to overlook the added value that they bring."

The Navajo Nation has committed to proceed with a program specifically geared toward training Navajo teachers when the Ford money runs out. Each of the consortium institutions has also agreed to continue its role in the process, with staff members specifically assigned to work on Navajo teacher education projects. At the same time, Diné College is hoping to earn accreditation for its own four-year teacher education program.

The emphasis on Navajo culture and language will remain a key feature of all the programs, say organizers. Each institution will attempt to offer what organizers call "value added" characteristics, aimed at the needs of Navajo students, such as continued on-site instruction, part-time student status, Navajo faculty members, and counseling.

All of these features are designed to foster special care for Navajo teachers, whom reservation officials see as the vehicle through which their culture will be preserved and passed on.

Elmer Guy, of the Navajo's division of education, says that preservation of tradition is essential not only for student knowledge, but for the vitality of his people. As he puts it, "If you don't know your history, you are history."

Vol. 16, Issue 37, Page 38-43

Published in Print: June 11, 1997, as Return of the Native
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