A threat against tribes?

Displeasure over ban on bilingual programs matched by resentment of mogul's e-mail

The California millionaire behind Arizona’s anti-bilingual education proposition had a deal for Native American leaders: Support the controversial initiative and he’d help exempt their language classes from the pending law.

But when Ron Unz’s overtures were ignored, his tone turned ominous in an Oct. 27 e-mail to the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs obtained by The Arizona Republic.

“If the tribal leaders continue with this very negative attitude,” Unz wrote, “the Proposition 203 leadership may be far less willing to work with them after the election, and I hope they realize this important fact.”Native American leaders, whose communities overwhelming voted against the measure, consider the e-mail a threat.

“It sounds like he’s holding a gun to our head,” said Dana Russell, chief executive officer of Native Americans for Community Action in Flagstaff and a Navajo tribal member. “Tribal members aren’t going to go for anything that limits our language because that’s a serious infringement on personal rights.”

Unz admits that he sent the e-mail, saying he was frustrated with the vigorous campaigns that the state’s tribes, primarily the Navajo Nation, waged against Proposition 203.

“We were pretty straightforward during the campaign that the initiative did not apply to Indians because of sovereignty issues,” Unz said. “Then they go and fight it and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. If tribes have so much money to fight this, maybe they should pay for their own language programs.”

Unz also said that the state’s tribal leaders and their political consultants were “very gullible” about the details of the initiative, which he said allows children who already speak English when entering school to study other languages.

“Who would have thought that they would spend so much on a losing and pointless campaign?” Unz asked. “It really shows how the bilingual activists took advantage of them (Indian tribes).”

But state Native American leaders say it’s not clear that instruction of their dying languages will be allowed under the new law.

Many reservation schools teach in both English and students’ native languages. These classes fit the description of bilingual education, now banned under the proposition passed by 63 percent of Arizona voters Tuesday.

Tribal attorneys are looking into how the proposition could affect Native language programs in both public and federal Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Many of the programs are funded by the federal government.

The Navajo Nation and other tribes have not said how they would challenge Proposition 203, so it’s not clear exactly what Unz could do if he followed through with being “far less willing to work with them.”

So far, a similar anti-bilingual education initiative approved by California voters in 1998 has had no effect on language programs on Indian reservations in that state, said Andrew Andreoli, who oversees Native American education for the California Department of Education and who is a member of the Hupa Tribe.

The Hupa and the Yurok tribes in northern California have continued language revitalization programs under the assumption that tribal sovereignty supersedes the state law; but no one has challenged them in court, Andreoli said.

Only three Arizona counties – Coconino, Navajo and Apache – had majorities voting against the proposition and each has sizable numbers of voters from the Navajo, Hopi and Apache reservations.

Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, a Navajo language instructor at Northern Arizona University, said she had worked closely with the tribe on the bilingual issue. Parsons-Yazzie said it was the Proposition 203 organizers who ignored overtures from Navajo tribal members about reaching a compromise.

“They kept saying that American Indian tribes are exempt because of sovereignty. If sovereignty of Indian nations worked like it was supposed to that would probably be true, but we know what the truth of the matter is,” Parsons-Yazzie said.

John Chapela, a Window Rock attorney and legal aide to former Navajo President Peterson Zah, said that Proposition 203 was an “insult” to Navajo voters because “they saw this group of people imposing their viewpoint on what Navajo children should be taught in the classroom.”

“For Mr. Unz to say that tribal leaders shunned him, well, maybe he should take a look at the ballot box and see that it was the Indian nations expressing their feelings,” Chapela said.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602)444-8057. Republic reporter Daniel Gonzalez contributed to this article.

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