ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Oral tradition, practical application and computer technology are important ingredients as Albuquerque educators and Navajo elders work to arrest the rapid language shift apparent today in rural as well as urban communities.
The 1999 Navajo Language Immersion Camp which concluded July 30 was the second annual session conducted under a grant received by the Albuquerque Public Schools which ranked sixth in a nationwide competition with 207 submissions. The grant supports and supplements eight bilingual programs at in the school system.
“We have another two-year grant award to continue our programs,” said Jinii DeGroat, camp coordinator. During the school year, DeGroat is a Navajo language resource teacher in the schools. “With this program, we are trying to reverse the language shift of our Native speakers. The main goal is to introduce students back to the Navajo language. The training encompasses K (kindergarten) through 12th grade.”
Although the camp focused on urban Navajo students, DeGroat explained that some of the curriculum could be applied in rural areas. “There is a very rapid language shift happening in rural areas as well as urban areas. The lifestyle and culture in these areas is changing. Because of this lifestyle change, we haven’t found a purpose to use Navajo continuously.” DeGroat hopes the camp will provide a “message of the possibilities of what the Navajo can do wherever they are located.”
Because Navajo society is based on oral tradition, the main curriculum is oral-based communication. Its purpose is to use the spoken word to communicate activities so students can hear and become familiar with linguistic forms to be comfortable in saying the words. This is especially necessary for children who are English based. With the oral tradition, it is expected students will be able to construct their own ways to use the language.
Teachers are comprised of Albuquerque school Native teachers as well as Navajo oral history teachers. Leon Secatero, a Navajo elder, teaches children the Navajo alphabet and numerals through illustration, stories, interaction, songs, and drums. He also imparts historical information about family ties, geography, and the stars.
Ron Kiesel, an APS teacher, is involved in an oral tradition program that focuses on plants, herbs, animals, and songs. Other instructors teach about subjects such as Navajo literacy, cultural identity, beading, cooking, painting, drawing, physical recreation, and dancing. Although most instructions are through oral tradition or practical application, the language is also expressed through computer technology.
Besides the teaching staff, parent volunteers serve as teachers. Carolene Whitman, a parent volunteer assists girls dress making. “We help the teachers here,” Whitman said. It’s become a family thing…it’s a community.”
DeGroat agreed. “When we do Navajo activities in large groups the family volunteers help. It’s a positive way to create a community from students who are normally scattered throughout the school system.
“Another positive aspect of this immersion is the introduction of our children to their roots … to. their ancestors. The children are now saying prayers, and singing in the morning and at night. The little ones hum the songs. The older students are willing to be here with younger students to assist them in any way that they can. Although a piece of our identity has been disrupted at this point, we hope that the introduction to the Navajo language will encourage our children to take pride in being Navajo.”
For more information about the Navajo Language Immersion Camp, write to the Navajo Language Proficiency Project Indian Education Unit, 3315 Louisiana Boulevard, NE, Albuquerque, NM 87110 or call (505) 880-3995, extension 149.