Native American communities are mobilizing against a Nov. 7 ballot initiative to dismantle bilingual education in Arizona, saying it could harm their efforts to preserve tribal languages.
Proposition 203, which would replace bilingual education in Arizona with a one-year English immersion program, is aimed primarily at the 140,000 Latino children classified as limited English speakers. But some Native Americans fear that the measure could end or restrict programs aimed at saving tribal languages that are nearing extinction.
Maria Mendoza, chairwoman of English for the Children, the group spearheading the campaign to pass Proposition 203, said the measure was not intended to include Native Americans.
“In all honesty, we were not thinking it would affect them in this way,” she said.
The group assumed that the tribes would be able to exercise tribal sovereignty to override Proposition 203 and, therefore, did not include language in the proposed law exempting them, she said.
Nevertheless, Mendoza said, she believes that dismantling bilingual education in Arizona would benefit Native Americans and argued that the role of public education is to teach children to read, write and speak in English, not preserve native languages.
“These children need to learn English, too, and we cannot keep them isolated so that they can enjoy the American dream that all others are enjoying except them and Hispanics,” she said.
“I think the tribal leaders should be focusing on getting their children to learn English. Why do they want to keep them as prisoners in their culture and their heritage? Don’t they realize their kids have dreams, too, and the only way you can get ahead in this country is to learn English?”
That attitude inflames several Native American leaders in Arizona, who view Proposition 203 as the latest in a long history of attempts to strip Indians of their languages.
“The language is part of the culture. All the traditional teachings, the way of life, the culture, are all embedded in the language,” said LeNora Fulton,
an administrator for the Division of Dine Education on the Navajo Nation,
the largest of the state’s 21 federally recognized tribes.
The governments of four tribes have passed resolutions opposing Proposition 203, and hundreds of Native Americans are expected to march against the measure this morning in downtown Phoenix. The march will end with a rally at the state Capitol.
There are 17 distinct tribal languages spoken in Arizona.
Some Native Americans fear that Proposition 203 could dismantle programs at many schools on or near reservations where students are either taught in their native tongue or spend part of the day studying their tribal language.
These programs are designed to keep such languages alive.
As many as 19,000 children in the Navajo Nation could be affected by Proposition 203, says Wayne Holm, an education specialist for the Navajo Nation.
Robert Russell, a retired Arizona State University professor considered one of the state’s foremost experts on Indian education, said research has repeatedly indicated that Native American children thrive best when their language and culture are maintained.
“All the education will be worthless if the child doesn’t know who they are,” he said. “It’s an asset, not a liability, and the people who are saying it’s a liability don’t know what they are talking about.”
Kelsey Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said there is no clear legal opinion on whether federally recognized tribal sovereignty would allow the Navajo Nation or any tribe in Arizona to override Proposition 203.
Eleven lawyers are studying the matter, but none has reached a decision, he said.
Ron Unz, a California millionaire bankrolling Proposition 203, says that the California Department of Education obtained a legal opinion stating that a similar initiative passed by voters there in 1998 would have no effect on Native Americans because of tribal sovereignty.
But Begaye said no one has been able to locate that legal opinion, and even if one exists, there is no evidence it would apply to Arizona.
California Department of Education officials could not be reached for comment.
Debra Krol, who edits the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs newsletter,
said the issue regarding tribal sovereignty in California had not been legally tested. The California Board of Education had advised tribes to assume sovereignty and ignore the law, she said. But there is no guarantee that would happen in Arizona, she said.
Patti Likens, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education, said state officials have yet to determine whether Proposition 203 would affect tribes. Officials plan to meet with lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office to discuss it, she said.
Attorney General spokeswoman Patty Urias said the office has a policy of not giving legal opinions on initiatives until after elections.
The Hopi Nation last week passed a resolution opposing Proposition 203. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Navajo Nation also have done so.
The Navajo Nation is paying for two buses to transport people from the reservation in northern Arizona to Phoenix to take part in the march and the rally, said Margorie Thomas, a Navajo who serves on the Chinle Unified School District’s Board of Education and is a retired teacher and school administrator.
“A lot of the Navajo parents don’t speak the language anymore, and we are losing the language,” Thomas said. “We are trying to keep the language alive.”
Teachers instruct in Navajo to reinforce language skills and to help children grasp concepts they don’t understand in English, she said.
If Proposition 203 passes, Thomas said, she plans to stop speaking English .
“I’m going to throw out the English language,” she said. “I’m not going to speak it anymore. I’m not going to hear it. I’m only going to speak my language.”
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