ROCK POINT, ARIZ.—On a slip of scrub land between a mountain and a mesa, in a remote and arid quarter of northeastern Arizona, children are learning modern math in an ancient language once threatened with extinction.
“Ashdla’ doo dii’ ako nehast’ei,” says Gerald Begay, 5, pushing together two sets of silver blocks for his kindergarten teacher at Rock Point Community School. “Five and four, they are nine.”
The musical, guttural, 3,000-year-old Navajo language is thriving in modern classrooms on the nation’s largest Indian reservation–20 million acres of wind-sculpted bluffs and canyons sprawled across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
It is being transmitted over radios and preserved in newspapers and computer memory banks. Today, more people speak, read and write Navajo than ever before, due in part to a change in the way Navajos are educating their children.
Increasingly, schools on the reservation are using bilingual education, not just as a bridge to English fluency, but as a learning tool.
“We have turned the direction of Navajo education around 180 degrees,” explains Anselm Davis Jr., superintendent of Window Rock School District, located in the reservation’s capital. “We have rewritten our educational goals to say that our culture is worth saving and our language is an appropriate language for instruction.”
At a time when the effectiveness of teaching in two languages is being challenged by the federal government, Navajos are arguing that bilingual education is vital to their survival. The debate over language, they say, amounts to a struggle for cultural dominance.
“The real issue is empowerment,” says Wayne Holm, assistant director at Rock Point. “Bilingual education helps empower a community and its children.”
Although tradition continues to collide with an encroaching technological world–it is not uncommon to see a satellite dish propped next to a rounded hogan made of mud and wood–the 200,000 Navajos living here are self- sufficient in many respects.
While fighting a host of well-publicized problems, including alcoholism and unemployment, they have nonetheless emerged as a powerful political force in Arizona. They maintain their own legislature, police force and judicial system.
There is a greater degree of language insulation and cultural self- sufficiency here, experts say, than anyplace else in the country. About 90 percent of Navajo children entering school speak little or no English. Navajo is still the first language of two out of three reservation homes.
“English is a foreign language here,” says Benjamin Tam, principal of elementary education at Rock Point, one of the few schools in the country to provide bilingual education as a learning tool for all students from kindergarten through grade 12. “Our strength as a people comes from the strength of our language.”
Rock Point, a small community, is poor even by reservation standards. The land is overgrazed. Water is scarce. There were, until recently, few high school graduates and virtually no college graduates.
The situation changed with the introduction of bilingual education, residents say. Since the school began teaching in Navajo, students have consistently scored higher on standardized English reading tests than students in public schools without bilingual programs.
Math and science scores are up. Most importantly, teachers say students are confident enough to engage in classroom discussions, and a measure of pride has been restored to the community.
Balancing two cultures hasn’t been easy. A typewriter in Navajo is somewhat clumsily called beesh bee ak’e’elchihi or “metal by means of which one writes.” A computer is referred to as nilch’i naalkidi bee ak’e’elchihior or “writing that is done with electricity through the air.”
The school has had to develop many of its own materials for teaching Navajo. But the snags haven’t slowed the progress of bilingual education. Nine of the reservation’s more than 200 schools run programs similar to Rock Point. And the practice soon will be reservation-wide.
Parents are hoping for positive results, based on this school’s success. Out of 16 graduates in 1985, 10 are in college, 2 at Ivy League universities.
Their progress may have something to do with the elimination of educational frills and the low student-teacher ratio. “We don’t do a lot of art and music,” says Holm. “We select what we think is important: no fancies, just a lot of reading and arithmetic.”
Rock Point is a mix of community control, parental involvement, skilled teachers and intensive language instruction.
In the past, Navajo parents had little influence over the education of their children. Youths were forced to attend distant boarding schools where strict discipline was used to “civilize” them. Many parents, seeing few alternatives to their harsh rural life, subscribed to the philosophy of assimilation.
An unforeseen benefit of the switch has been that with less of an emphasis on English, fewer Indians are leaving the reservation. In recent years, many have returned to live and work there.