English-Language Learners

Tribes Oppose Arizona Bilingual Ed. Measure

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 13, 2000 8 min read
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A ballot initiative to get rid of bilingual education in Arizona is not sitting well with some American Indians in that state, who see it as an affront to their efforts to maintain or revitalize their tribal languages.

The governments of three tribes have passed resolutions opposing the measure, called Proposition 203, which will be put before voters in November. The Navajo Nation and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community passed resolutions against the proposed measure last year before it was officially approved for the state ballot. The Tohono O’Odham tribe passed a resolution against it last month.

Like Proposition 227, a state ballot initiative that was approved by California voters in 1998, Proposition 203 aims to replace bilingual education programs with one-year English-immersion programs. The Arizona measure would be more restrictive than the one in California, however, in granting waivers that would allow parents to enroll their children in bilingual education.

As a result, officials at the Arizona Department of Education predict that if the proposition passes, it will close down all bilingual education programs in the state. It calls for schools to put in place one-year English immersion programs for any children who are identified as having limited proficiency in English.

Only a small number of American Indian children in Arizona are participating in bilingual education that includes a substantial amount of instruction in their tribal languages, tribal leaders acknowledge. A majority of LEP Native American children are in English-as-a-second-language programs, which typically feature little if any instruction in a student’s native tongue.

Still, American Indian opponents of Proposition 203 say it could create obstacles for even small efforts to revitalize tribal languages, many of which are nearly extinct. They say the measure seems to promote the same kind of English-only policies in schools that contributed to the loss of many of those languages in the first place.

“The Navajo Nation experienced almost a hundred years of ‘English only’ education between the late 1860s and late 1960s,” says the resolution adopted by the tribe. “Only with the inclusion of some Navajo language and culture in the schools did more Navajo students begin to succeed.”

“In Indian Country, if you lose your language, you lose your culture,” added Katherine Marquez, the cultural-preservation director for the Yavapai-Apache Nation. “Native Americans shouldn’t be denied their native tongue.”

She said her tribe has only a dozen fluent speakers of the Yavapai language remaining; they buried one such speaker—a 95-year-old woman—last week. Ms. Marquez said she opposes Proposition 203 not because it would close down any language programs on her reservation—the tribe has only a small language- revitalization program, which is outside the schools—but because she doesn’t like to see anyone’s language “taken away.”

Maria E. Mendoza, the chairwoman of English for the Children-Arizona, the organization spearheading the campaign to pass Proposition 203, said she couldn’t point to any American Indian individuals or groups who are supporting the proposition. She said she assumes it would affect Indian children.

As of last week, she said, no tribal leaders had been in touch with her directly about their views on the proposition. “I haven’t heard from any Native American people who call me directly and say, ‘Why are you doing this? We want to continue instruction in our own language,’” Ms. Mendoza said.

Some Exceptions

State officials said they believe schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs or by tribes under contract with the BIA would not have to follow Proposition 203. But they expected that the 13 public school districts on Arizona’s Indian reservations would have to adhere to the law.

The state’s public schools have 58,000 Native American students and an additional 11,000 attend BIA schools, according to Juana C. Jose, who oversees Indian education for the state education department and is a member of the Tohono O’Odham tribe.

She said the education department doesn’t keep track of how many of the public school districts on reservations run comprehensive bilingual education programs. The state also does not count how many of the state’s Native American students are LEP.

On one end of the spectrum of language-renewal efforts in Arizona is the work of a few bilingual people in a 200-student charter school of the Pima- Maricopa Indian Community who teach young people phrases and vocabulary from the Pima and Maricopa languages in their regular classes.

“Because of this initiative, we would be precluded from using our approach,” said Larry Schurz, an assistant to the education director of the community He said the tribal languages are spoken fluently by only a few hundred people, out of 6,000 tribal members; thus, they are no longer being passed on in most homes. “The community wanted this to happen in the schools,” he said.

The initiative, he said, “would place upon us more of the burden of becoming more assimilated, and it would further erode from us our identity as Indian people.”

On the other end of the spectrum is a K-12 bilingual education program at Peach Springs School on the Hualapai reservation. About 40 percent of the school’s 330 children are fluent in Hualapai, and about 60 percent understand but don’t speak it, said Lucille C. Watahomigie, the director of bilingual education at the school. About 70 percent of the children are considered LEP.

“I feel we’re at a really critical stage in our language,” she said. “We keep impressing on the children: You understand the language, but you have to start speaking it. Once you’re the adult, you have to speak it to your children.”

While the Hualapai tribal council has not passed a resolution against Proposition 203, Ms. Watahomigie said terminating the reservation school’s bilingual education program “would be a big setback.”

She said the program had improved the academic achievement of the Hualapai children while preserving the tribal language. When she arrived at the school in the 1970s as a certified teacher, her principal then would not permit her to use her native tongue with students. Since the implementation of a bilingual education program, students’ standardized-test scores have risen, and more students have gone on to graduate from college than before, she said. Another tribe that still has large numbers of children and youths who speak their tribal tongue is the Navajo Nation. The Arizona education department reports that 19,000 of the state’s LEP students speak Navajo as their primary language. And the Navajos have been one of the most active tribes in Arizona in opposing the anti- bilingual-education proposal.

The tribe held a meeting in June, attended by about 100 people, to discuss the initiative. Several staff members of the tribe’s education division are speaking before small groups of tribe members to inform them about its contents.

“What the Navajo Nation is concerned about is that it would eliminate all Navajo-language programs,” said Wayne Holm, an education specialist for the tribe’s division of education, a non-Indian who speaks Navajo. “Many [supporters of Proposition 203] don’t realize this affects Native American programs. They say, ‘This wasn’t our intention.’ I say, ‘It’s not a matter of intention. You’ve put in some really rough language.’ ”

He said that most public schools on the Navajo reservation have some kind of language program that could be closed should Proposition 203 pass, even if some of those programs involve only one period’s worth of immersion in the tribal language for each student per week.

The percentage of Navajo children who are LEPand therefore potentially affected by Proposition 203—ranges from 15 percent to 75 percent across schools in Navajo country, Mr. Holm estimates. He doesn’t believe the tribal-language programs would survive if those children couldn’t participate.

The Sovereignty Issue

One question that remains unanswered is whether the 21 tribes of Arizona could exercise their federally recognized tribal sovereignty to override the effects of Proposition 203 should it pass.

The measure could conflict with the laws passed by some American Indian tribes, including the Navajo Nation, to preserve and teach their languages.

“It puts state employees in very awkward positions,” Mr. Holm said. “This hasn’t been tested. Whose law would prevail? You can assume state law would prevail.”

Melody L. McCoy, a staff lawyer who monitors American Indian education issues for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., agreed the issue is not clear on a national level.

“How much sovereignty can the tribes have over the public schools that serve tribal students on a reservation?” she said. “There’s no clear answer.”

Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who paid for the campaign to pass California’s Proposition 227 and is also financing the effort to pass Proposition 203, said he assumes that the tribes could exercise their sovereignty over Proposition 203 in the same way that American Indian tribes did over Proposition 227.

But Andrew L. Andreoli, who heads up American Indian education for the California Department of Education and is a member of the Hupa tribe, said that the issue of Proposition 227 and Native American sovereignty had not been legally tested in California.

Instead, he said, the two public school districts on Indian reservations in California were advised by the state education department to assume sovereignty over the state law, and no one has challenged them in court.

“It’s basically been handled subtly,” Mr. Andreoli said.

Mr. Unz said the question of how Native Americans would be affected by a state anti- bilingual-education law wasn’t a big issue in California, and so he didn’t give it consideration in helping to draft Proposition 203.

“I never really thought about it one way or another,” Mr. Unz said. “It was never an issue in the campaign because in California the numbers are so small.”


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