Indians fear Prop. 203 may destroy languages

Native tongues were the first to be spoken in Arizona. They may also be the first to disappear.

Tribal education leaders across the state say they’re worried voters may hasten or ensure the deaths of indigenous languages if they outlaw bilingual education, except with special waivers, by approving Proposition 203 on Nov. 7.

But proposition backers say they don’t believe it will affect American Indian languages, and state officials say they just aren’t sure. Both sides expect lawyers to hash that out.

The Navajo in Northern Arizona and the Apache in Eastern Arizona are the only tribes now receiving federal and state money for bilingual education. The Navajo say they stand to lose about $10 million. Public schools on and off reservations would be affected, except federally funded Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, Indian educators said.

Six tribes

Arizona Department of Education 1998-99 records show six districts on tribal land receiving federal and state money for bilingual education, including English as a Second Language and other programs.

The White River Unified School District for Apache gets $1.5 million. The other $9.9 million is divided among the Ganado, Window Rock, Tuba City, Chinle and Kayenta districts, all on the Navajo Reservation. A total of 12,927 children are enrolled in the six districts’ programs.

As for other tribes, including Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui in the Tucson area, state education officials say they don’t know if the proposition would affect them because they did not report having bilingual education programs. Tribal officials say they want to retain the option for the future, though.

Tucson and Sunnyside unified districts do not offer bilingual education for American Indians. Pueblo High Magnet School offers a Tohono O’odham elective language class. Yaqui language and culture is taught in some schools, said Leonard Basurto, TUSD bilingual education director.

“When you learn your language, you learn who you are and where you come from,” said Jesse Navarro, 17, who takes Pueblo’s O’odham class.

Krystal Juan, 15, said she wants to learn O’odham so she can communicate with her dad using their native tongue.

Alicia Ortega, also 15, said she fears Proposition 203 will help kill the languages more quickly. She said students need to learn them in a school setting to ensure their revitalization.

Rupert Encinas, who teaches the Pueblo students, said indigenous languages started dying when the students’ forebears were first sent to boarding schools in the 1920s. He said it takes time to recapture a dying language, but that it’s crucial.

The backers of Proposition 203, which ends bilingual education and calls for children who do not speak English to be immersed in English instruction for one year, counter that tribes are using scare tactics.

“Native American languages are already disappearing. What we find strange is that our proposition is going to be blamed for it,” said Hector Ayala, co-director of English for the Children-Arizona.

“Either reservations won’t be impacted because they are sovereign nations, or the proposition will, in fact, impact the reservations. That will be good.

“The tragedy with the Navajo is not that they are losing their language. It is a problem they can solve on their own. The main problem with Native American kids is that they are not learning English well enough to attend universities,” Ayala said. “Mexican- and Native Americans have the highest dropout rates, lowest enrollments in colleges, and are the only people with bilingual education.”

Ron Unz, of Palo Alto, Calif., wrote an initiative that did away with bilingual education, except through special waivers, in California. He also helped Ayala’s group with Prop. 203.

May not hurt

Unz said he does not think the measure would hurt indigenous languages because of federal law protecting Indian languages that passed nearly 10 years ago. He said California’s initiative did not affect tribes there.

Laura Penny, Arizona education spokeswoman, said it is not clear-cut here. “We will meet with the Attorney General’s Office in the next few weeks to understand the implications. . . . It is a laudable goal to have students speaking more than one language. We certainly don’t support this English-only rhetoric.”

* Contact Carmen Duarte at 573-4195 or e-mail [email protected]

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