SHIPROCK, N.M. – Under the guise of acculturation – or adaptation to another culture – the Navajo people were told the worst about their language in school.
“We weren’t allowed to speak Navajo. They never had a class for Navajo language. We got in trouble for talking Navajo in school, so we had to talk English,” said Leonard McKenzie, a resident of northwest New Mexico. “Any student speaking Navajo, they got punished. They put soap in their mouth for hours and hours because they were talking Navajo,” he said.
McKenzie became a proficient English speaker at the Navajo United Methodist Mission School in Farmington. But when summer arrived, he couldn’t get a job at the chapter government house. His Navajo language skills had declined in a society gifted in the oral tradition.
Kino Benally, his grandson, is a testament to change.
English is Benally’s first language. Yet as a first-grader he is learning to count, name animals and say the Pledge of Allegiance in his Navajo tongue at Nataani Nez Elementary School in Shiprock. Before he walks off stage with a high school diploma, he will have been given opportunities to absorb Navajo language, history and culture in a public school setting.
Maybe when he’s older he will understand the struggle it has taken to integrate at least 50 minutes of Navajo studies in the classroom every day.
Rena Henry began the Central Schools bilingual program in 1984 with one Navajo-endorsed teacher. She was an elementary school principal in Naschitti then. Now she’s the district’s director of bilingual multicultural education.
Henry and a team of 31 teachers are using a state-funded bilingual program to rebuild what the federal government sought to suppress. Their mission: To give 3,835 students a sure footing in both worlds.
Henry is the first public school educator and the first American Indian to receive the Bilingual Administrator of the Year award from the New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education.
Henry set out to control the quality of instruction in the classrooms through an aggressive teacher training program. Navajo teachers must pass a Navajo proficiency test that covers four vowels, 32 consonants, and tricky tonal variations.
Until the early 1900s, there was no written language – even now few read and write the language. But teachers must read, write and speak Navajo. Navajo-speaking teachers must earn 24 credit hours in a rigorous program at Dine College to obtain a state-recognized endorsement.
The district bilingual program has grown from one Navajo-endorsed teacher in 1984 to 26 Navajo-endorsed, one Spanish-endorsed and five English-as-a-second-language certified teachers today.
Fort Lewis College in Durango delivers ESL courses on-site inShiprock. By June, the district hopes to have 19 more ESL-endorsed teachers.
Henry also worked with teachers and parents to write the only Navajo language and culture curriculum in New Mexico. In July, the school board approved the “Essential Learnings for Dine Language,” a document that aligns the curriculum to state standards and benchmarks for modern, classical and Native languages.
In partnership with Dine College, the tribal college in Shiprock, the district designed a CD-ROM program so that secondary students can practice the language on the computer. Another one is being developed for elementary school students.
Henry, the mother of four children and five grandchildren, is aware of
outside pressures on Navajo ways. The district tests students’ oral language capacity and comprehension – novice, intermediate or advanced speaker – at the start of school. The curriculum keeps changing because the linguistic needs of the children are changing.
In 1971, many of her students were non-English speakers. “Today, we don’t have a single one,” she said.