Special Report
English-Language Learners

The Special Case of Bilingual Education for Indian Students

By James Crawford — April 01, 1987 22 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

At least 206 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States--more than all the immigrant tongues combined--and yet, experts say, the need for bilingual education among American Indians and Alaska natives is poorly understood by many who would not question its value for newly arrived Cambodians or Salvadorans. According to researchers, several factors have contributed to this misunderstanding.

For one thing, the indigenous languages are dying out on most Indian reservations. A majority of such languages lack functional, written alphabets, and, with some exceptions, such as Navajo and Crow, these languages are primarily preserved by older generations. Only a fraction of Indian children come to school speaking their ancestral tongues, and English is often the dominant language in their homes. Consequently, few Indian bilingual programs were eligible for federal assistance under early versions of Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But educators and linguists have noticed what they say is a unique phenomenon among Indian students: Even without fluency in their native languages, many are limited-English-proficient, apparently because of the influences those languages have exerted on students’ use of English. In amending the Bilingual Education Act in 1978, the Congress acknowledged this problem by expanding the definition of LEP children from Native American backgrounds. In a sense, lawmakers recognized that Indian bilingual education is a special case.

Bilingual education struck many Indian parents as a bizarre reversal of government policy when federal Title VII programs were introduced on Montana reservations in the early 1970’s.

Many recalled with bitterness their own school experiences, when they were made to feel ashamed of their native languages and were sometimes disciplined for using them. Why, they asked, should their children, many of whom spoke little Crow or Cree or Cheyenne, go through similar humiliations? Some parents believed in making their children use English at home, “for their own good,’' and wondered why the schools should do anything less.

Ted Risingsun, a school-board member in Busby, Mont., worked hard to change such parents’ minds. He urged fellow members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe to take pride in their language and to recognize the benefits of teaching it to their children. “We found that those who learn Cheyenne well learn English well,’' he says, and parents were invited into the classroom to see for themselves. By the end of the first year, the bilingual program had “almost 100 percent support’’ on the reservation, he says.

Growing up in the 1930’s, Mr. Risingsun was forbidden by school officials to speak Cheyenne, the only language he knew. “I’d never spoken English,’' he says, “but at school I was expected to use it. I didn’t even know my name [in English] was Ted Risingsun. I hung my head. If there had been a bilingual teacher there, things would have been different.’'

Rose Chesarek, a Crow educator, tells a similar story of her “sink or swim’’ experience. “When you come in the school doors, everything is totally foreign. You shed everything at the door, sit at a desk, and you don’t understand one word of what goes on. I don’t know how I got to 4th grade, because I don’t remember too much of anything until then.’'

The school’s ban on using Crow lasted into the 1950’s, part of its policy of suppressing everything about students that was Indian, Ms. Chesarek says. “All the way through school,’' she recalls, “I was told they just wanted to make me a white person, so I’d succeed. The teachers would tell me everything about me was bad. I’d go home and think about it--'What in the hell got me to be an Indian? Why?’''

Now a bilingual teacher in Pryor, Mont., and a doctoral candidate in education, Ms. Chesarek says she is determined to do her part to break the pattern of low self-esteem and underachievement still suffered today by many Crow children. Native-language instruction, she argues, plays an important role in developing students’ pride in their Indian identity, a factor that research has linked to improved achievement in school. And on the basis of her own teaching experience, she says she has no doubts about the long-term cognitive benefits of bilingual education.

In 1973-74, when linguists were still developing the Crow alphabet, Ms. Chesarek became the first teacher of reading in that language. Her class of 15 monolingual Crow speakers received initial literacy and mathematics instruction in Crow, along with English as a second language. Although the children did well, the reading program was abandoned after a year, Ms. Chesarek says, and she resigned because of disorganization and controversy in the early Title VII program.

“This year, those students are seniors in high school,’' she says. “All through the years, I would follow them, talk to their parents, and ask how they were doing. And most parents would say, ‘Oh, that one is doing so well, but my others are not. I wonder why.’''

Limited in Two Languages

A major cause of school failure among Indians--and among other minorities as well--is students’ inadequate foundation in either English or their native tongue. But the case of limited-English-proficient Indian children is unique, experts say, because, more often than not, they grow up speaking English, not the ancestral language of their tribe.

The problem, explains William L. Leap, an American University linguist, is that the “variety of English common to their home and community [bears] many similarities (in sounds used, in sentence forms, and in style and structure of speaking) to the ancestral language of the community.’'

“It [is] their knowledge of the locally appropriate ‘Indian English’ code--not their knowledge of their ancestral language per se--which [is] creating the classroom difficulties,’' he adds.

Dick Littlebear, a consultant to Title VII programs who is president of the Montana Association for Bilingual Education, agrees: “You find these kids floating between two nonstandard languages, a population growing up without a linguistic home. The kids haven’t had the basis to develop reasoning skills.’'

By the time such children reach age 5 or 6, creating a solid linguistic foundation becomes problematic for educators. Attempts to impose standard English through the correction of errors and other remedial techniques “lead to serious consequences for the child,’' Mr. Leap says.

A child’s “control over his community’s Indian English variety may be his only link to ancestral-language fluency,’' he adds. “It may, for example, help explain why Indian students say they ‘understand’ their grandparents when they talk, yet they cannot ‘speak’ to their grandparents in their language. Remediation destroys these linkages--hence, student rejection of attempts to [impose] standard language structures,’' especially when schools offer them “no alternative other than to acquire it or reject it.’'

Bilingual education offers an alternative, Mr. Leap argues. By studying their native language, students can acquire “better control over the non-English grammar’’ they have internalized. In this way, they become conscious of structural differences between the standard English of academic pursuits and the vernacular of reservation life.

George Reed, a former Crow educator and linguist, says that today many of his reservation’s youth grow up speaking “Crowlish,’' a blend of the Indian language and English. Native-language instruction can play a role in “helping Indian children sort out their identity,’' he says, and in slowing the erosion of their ancestral tongues.

“My lexicon is my way of life,’' Mr. Reed explains. “Culture is expressed by the language, and my language is tied up with the culture.’'

Home Language Base

Also, research strongly suggests there are academic advantages for Indian children whose language is preserved and used in the home. This was the conclusion of a five-year longitudinal study conducted in the early 1970’s by Steve Chesarek, director of Pryor’s new bilingual program.

Mr. Chesarek’s research followed Crow students’ achievement in reservation schools--with and without bilingual education. In those days, native-language instruction at Crow Agency, Mont., was just getting started, and it was “basically an oral program,’' he says. “But what we found was that if you utilize the kids’ own language, you see some rapid growth in a number of areas, including English development. Kids who are fluent Crow speakers learn English very quickly, if somebody sets out to teach them English. And they do well in other academic areas, too.’'

From 70 percent to 80 percent of Crow children are either bilingual or monolingual in their native language when they enter school, educators estimate, compared with 20 percent to 30 percent on other Montana reservations. Still, some Crow parents try to raise their children as English-speakers--a decision that can have negative effects on a child’s school achievement, according to Mr. Chesarek’s research.

“English is their only language, but they’re already limited-English-speakers’’ by kindergarten, he says. “They’re hearing two Crow-speaking parents--or maybe a Crow and a Cheyenne. ... Typically, if one of the parents was a fluent English-speaker, the child had no problem with English, but there weren’t very many of those.’'

Out of tradition or necessity--"alcoholism, teen-age pregnancy, or the parents go off to look for a job’'--grandparents often take charge of child-rearing on the reservation, says Minerva Allen, federal-programs director for the Hays/Lodge Pole school district in northeastern Montana. And their English skills tend to be even more limited than those of the parents, she adds.

As a group, Mr. Chesarek says, children reared by LEP parents or grandparents start behind and stay behind. By contrast, fluent Crow-speakers may begin two to three years behind fluent English-speakers, but they quickly catch up in English-language skills, according to his research.

On the reservation, Crow children who speak only English “tend to become somewhat isolated,’' Mr. Chesarek adds. “The Crow-speaking kids aren’t as likely to play with them, because they don’t speak Crow, and the white kids aren’t as likely to play with them, because they’re Indian. And so they form their own play group, and they reinforce the limited English that they have.’'

“If you want to draw a generalization,’' he says, “it doesn’t matter which language you raise your child in. As long as you’re fluent in it, they’ll become fluent in it.’'

Early Efforts

The federal government’s first foray into Indian bilingual education came in 1969, when it financed a “pan-Indian’’ project involving the Crow and Rocky Boy reservations in Montana and another in Oklahoma.

Little is known about the results of this early effort, says Cheryl K. Crawley, an assistant superintendent of the school district that includes Hardin and Crow Agency, Mont. But one thing that people did learn, she says, is that “you can’t have a pan-Indian bilingual program, because of the enormous differences between tribes and languages.’'

Mr. Littlebear, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, echoes that sentiment: “One of the fallacies that white people have about Indians is that they think we’re generic.’'

Variables such as the extent to which an Indian language has been preserved, the role it plays in reservation life, whether it is written as well as spoken, and how it fits into tribal politics have had a crucial effect, educators say, on the development of Indian bilingual education, particularly in its early stages.

On the Rocky Boy reservation, a long tradition of Cree literacy has been nurtured and guarded by the tribal elders, Mr. Chesarek says. “They already knew how to read and write Cree’’ when bilingual-education programs began, “and so they’d teach the young kids who were going to be teachers. There was no question whether it was culturally pure--it was coming from the experts.’'

He adds that “there’s a whole body of Cree literature that’s never been translated into English. They’re very jealous of their own copyright. For kids old enough to realize this, there’s a motivation to learn to read in Cree.’'

By contrast, attempts to put Crow into written form began only in the 1960’s, when the Wycliffe Bible translators began to develop an orthography, or phonological alphabet. The process continued into the late 1970’s with the aid of academic experts, including two Crows who studied linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only last year was the first comprehensive Crow dictionary completed.

When a new Title VII program began at Crow Agency in 1977, says Ms. Crawley, only 11 adults were known to be literate in the language. That number has increased dramatically, thanks to teacher training and a Crow-studies curriculum at the reservation’s Little Big Horn Community College, directed by Dale Old Horn, one of the MIT-trained linguists.

But a decade ago, the idea of teaching Crow literacy was foreign to parents who had never experienced it themselves. And many questioned whether the program’s emphasis on Crow culture was time well spent, reflecting parents’ dissatisfaction with an earlier Title VII program that featured beadwork and other traditional crafts.

“In the beginning, our biggest goal was public relations,’' Ms. Crawley explains, “getting parents to understand what we were trying to do. We emphasized that culture in the classroom meant doing academics embedded in a familiar cultural context that Indian children could understand.’'

Using a newsletter and calendars with monthly messages about bilingual education, the Crow Agency program gradually won over the community, Ms. Crawley says, and parents are no longer asking that their children be excused from native-language instruction.

In fact, many educators argue, the Crow Agency experience illustrates an important side effect of bilingual instruction--the new attitude that it is fostering among many Indian parents, who are less likely to ban or neglect their ancestral language in the home.

Bilingual Materials Center

In addition to parental resistance, the Crow Agency program faced another obstacle--an almost total absence of instructional materials in Crow.

Beginning in 1979, Title VII financed a Bilingual Materials Development Center that published translations of tribal legends and history, along with original stories written by its staff. The center produced bilingual calendars, workbooks, Crow-language flash cards, filmstrips, and bulletin-board exhibits. And it took charge of compiling the first Crow dictionary.

Though located on the Crow reservation, the center also published materials for other Indian bilingual programs in Montana.

Last year, the U.S. Education Department withdrew funding for the materials-development center, a decision Ms. Crawley regards as a setback for Indian bilingual education. “Materials development is vital,’' she says. “No commercial publisher is going to do it, because they can’t make any kind of profit’’ on the limited market for Indian-language publications.

This year, one of the two federally funded centers for materials development will serve an Indian bilingual program operated by the Ute tribe.

A small part of Crow Agency’s Title VII grant will now go toward materials, but the amount is far short of what is needed, says Marlene Walking Bear, the program’s director. Although the tribal government would be sympathetic to helping out, she says, the budget is tight on the economically depressed reservation.

Introducing Crow Literacy

While perhaps an extreme case, Crow Agency illustrates Indian children’s extensive need for language services. Most of the bilingual school’s 250 students in grades K-6 come from homes where Crow is spoken. Although many appear fluent in conversational English, Ms. Walking Bear says, 99 percent are assessed as limited-English-proficient.

“They don’t have the academic language,’' she explains. “They can hear and follow directions, but they may not be able to produce.’'

Upon entering the program, children are taught oral concepts in Crow, and about half their time is spent in English-reading-readiness and E.S.L. instruction. Reading is taught first in English, and the percentage of native-language use in other subjects is gradually reduced to about 20 percent by the 4th grade.

At that time, children are first taught to read in Crow. Along with lessons in Crow history and culture, this language-enrichment program continues through grade 6.

“More and more, kids are reading close to grade level’’ in English, Ms. Walking Bear says. And while they have yet to reach national norms, scores have improved steadily since 1977.

Ms. Crawley, who developed this instructional model, says that the lack of a basal reader in Crow and of a qualified staff to teach it makes initial reading instruction impractical in the native tongue. “I think the kids find it easier to learn to read English than to read Crow,’' she argues, “because the Crow words are so long, because the exposure they’ve had to print already is in English, and they’re used to those combinations of vowels and consonants.’'

As in many Indian languages, Crow words for some simple concepts can be difficult, she adds. For example, the six-syllable word for chair is baleaalawaache, or “something to sit on.’' This is one of many “compound words that came about through contact with whites,’' Ms. Crawley explains. “It’s a description of an object, rather than a simple, everyday word that has been in the language longer.’'

“Once kids have learned the techniques in English, and they get to 4th grade motivated to learn to read in their own language, then learning to read in Crow comes quite easy for them,’' she says, adding that Crow literacy mainly serves “to build self-esteem.’'

Several educators and researchers, however, take issue with this argument, noting that the Finnish, Magyar, Welsh, and Samoan languages feature word lengths and syntactical complexity comparable to that of Crow and other Indian tongues. “A foreign language always looks formidable to a person who’s going to learn it,’' says Mr. Littlebear, the Cheyenne consultant, adding that Americans who saw the movie Mary Poppins now “can say ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ and that’s longer than any of the Cheyenne words.’'

Ms. Chesarek says her students in the early 1970’s learned Crow literacy with ease and were soon reading “a book a week,’' because Crow’s sounds and its phonetic alphabet are similar to English, with only a few exceptions.

Need for Indian Teachers

Crow Agency has been fortunate in training and recruiting Crow-speaking staff members, who make up 8 of its 15 teachers this year; those lacking fluency in Crow work with 6 or 7 aides from the community. Altogether, there are about 40 certified Crow teachers, Ms. Crawley says, adding that only about half are now teaching on the reservation, not necessarily in bilingual programs.

On the other hand, the Title VII program at nearby Busby has no Cheyenne-speaking teachers and must rely entirely on aides, according to Norma Bixby, chairman of the local school board. Also, because of low pay and geographical isolation, top-notch white teachers for Indian children are hard to find, Ms. Bixby says, noting that the tribal contract school has lost some effective instructors to the Navajo reservation.

In the Hays/Lodge Pole school district, there are two certified Indian teachers in the Title VII program for 82 students, although Ms. Allen, the program’s director, has trained three others who remain at the school. To complicate matters, the program is not bilingual, but trilingual, to accommodate children from the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes who live on the Fort Belknap reservation.

The two languages share no more grammar or vocabulary with each other than they do with English, says Ms. Allen, an Assiniboine. But initial reading is taught in both Indian tongues, and “all the kids seem to learn both,’' along with English, which is taught about 75 percent of the time.

Ms. Allen estimates that in a state where whites rarely know more than a few words of an Indian language, only 1 percent of the certified teachers are Indian. “It would be a great help to the Indian children to have more,’' she says. “If we could train more teachers, we wouldn’t need the federal funds.’'

Knowledge of the structure of Indian languages is essential to high-quality ESL instruction, says Jon Reyhner, who directs training of bilingual/multicultural teachers at Eastern Montana College. To create a stable program, he says, Navajo administrators in Rock Point, Ariz., in the early 1970’s began training teachers from their community rather than cope with a high turnover among white teachers. Over the long term, this approach produced students who exceeded national norms in English reading by the 6th grade, one of the best-known success stories in Indian bilingual education.

Mr. Reyhner’s program trains Indian teachers and aides in the methods of bicultural education, native-language literacy, ESL, cross-cultural mathematics instruction, and the use of computers in bilingual settings.

Tribal Politics

While supporting the need for more Indian teachers, Mr. Chesarek notes that recruiting from the community creates “a whole new set of social and political problems that can get in the way of how people perceive bilingual education. If you’re hiring a local person, it’s hard to get rid of him.’'

Political opposition from the school board at Hardin-Crow Agency sabotaged early bilingual programs there, he says. The white domination of the school board--Hardin is a predominantly white “border town’’ just off the reservation--was weakened last year when Crows won a voting-rights suit that forced redistricting. But bilingual education remains controversial, observers say, reflecting racial tension in the small Montana town.

At the same time, Mr. Chesarek says, committed bilingual educators at reservation schools have been “politically pushed out’’ by factionalism within the tribes.

Because of massive unemployment--ranging as high as 85 percent on some Montana reservations--and a scarcity of private-sector employment, Title VII is sometimes regarded as “a jobs program,’' Ms. Crawley says. And this problem is compounded by the federal mandate for a parent advisory council, which can pressure for hiring based on political or family ties.

In general, however, tribal governments have welcomed bilingual education and its effects of preserving and developing Indian languages. Several tribes have adopted policies aimed at safeguarding their ancestral tongues. A Navajo education policy adopted under Peterson Zah, a former tribal chairman, requires the Navajo language to be taught in all reservation schools, not as a transition to English, but as a way of maintaining “an essential element of the life, culture, and identity of the Navajo people.’'

In 1984, the Northern Ute tribe adopted Ute as the official language of tribal government and commerce; it must be taught at every grade in elementary and secondary schools, and all teachers must take inservice training in the Ute language.

As a group, Indian bilingual programs are more dependent on Title VII funding than those serving any other language group. Most tribally controlled schools, run under contract with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, are caught in a perpetual cash squeeze. In January, the BIA announced plans to give tribes a choice of assuming responsibility for 112 more schools or allowing control to be transferred to the states.

Some reservation schools are administered by public school districts, but because Indian lands are not subject to property taxes, these institutions can seldom raise substantial funds on their own and are dependent on federal aid to Indian education. But these programs, such as Johnson-O’Malley assistance, have undergone generally deeper cuts than other Education Department accounts since 1981.

Meanwhile, Montana provides no state aid to bilingual education, and state legislators are generally surprised to learn that there are 10,000 LEP children in the state, Ms. Crawley says. Nearly all of these students come from Montana’s 10 tribal groups, who number about 50,000 members in all.

On the reservations, the funding shortage is severe, according to Ms. Bixby, the school-board chairman who also oversees federal education programs for the Northern Cheyenne tribe. “The programs getting cut are the remedial programs,’' she says, and the tribe has no way of making up the difference. “I wish someone could get our federal government to understand that cutting them means cutting our future.’'

There are 89 Title VII-supported projects serving Indian children this year, totaling $9.6 million, or 10.7 percent of bilingual-education grants to school districts.

Last year, the Reagan Administration, in rewriting regulations for these grants, tightened the definition of limited English proficiency. The new rules have the potential to exclude many Indian students now receiving Title VII services, educators say. To be eligible, LEP Indian children must now come from homes where there is “substantial use of [the native] language for communication.’'

Although there was no wholesale elimination of Indian bilingual programs last fall when the federal office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs made its annual grant awards, the threat remains, advocates of such programs argue. They say that an incident last year may have foreshadowed a less favorable climate for obtaining federal aid for their efforts.

In early 1986, an OBEMLA program officer questioned the funding of an Indian program in Mendocino County, Calif., contending that the Pomo Indian languages there had died out. This is untrue, according to the University of California linguist whom the official had cited as an authority.

In October, Mendocino County lost its Title VII funding after two years of a three-year grant, and its bilingual program had to close several weeks into the school year. The termination provoked widespread indignation among school officials, parents, and tribal leaders. OBEMLA gave first one, then another justification for its apparently unprecedented action, the latest being that the program used no native language, as the law requires.

According to John Simmons, the project director, Indian language and culture are a component of instruction, although the primary focus is on ESL The model was so successful, he says, that he had sought OBEMLA’s assistance in replicating it, adding that the office was made fully aware of the curriculum when it first approved funding for it in 1984. The district is appealing OBELA’s decision.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as The Special Case of Bilingual Education for Indian Students


English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

English-Language Learners Want to Support English-Learners? Prioritize SEL, New Study Finds
Students leaving English-learner programs report greater confidence in their academic abilities. How can SEL reinforce that finding?
4 min read
Young girl smiling and writing in classroom.
English-Language Learners Spotlight Spotlight on Language Instruction
This Spotlight will help you understand the challenges facing ELLs, gain insights into the future of education for ELL students, and more.
English-Language Learners Virtual Learning Made Persistent Problems Worse for English-Learners
But some solutions also existed pre-pandemic—and it's up to districts to put them into action, a pair of reports conclude.
4 min read
Photograph of young boy reading.
English-Language Learners Opinion Crystal Ball Predictions: What Will Education for ELL Students Look Like in 10 Years?
In the next decade, schools just might appreciate English-learners for whom they are and the language skills they possess.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."