Tribal Languages Unintended Target in English-Only Drive

Measure: Largely aimed at Spanish programs, the Arizona proposition could curb the teaching of Native American languages. Latino and Indian groups oppose it.

TEMPE, Ariz.—Arizona voters on Tuesday are expected to embrace a popular ballot initiative that would pronounce English the language of the state’s public schools.

But given the state’s unique demographics, the measure could have an unintended consequence. Proposition 203 is largely aimed at the state’s growing number of Spanish-speaking students, but the English-only edict also could restrict the teaching of the imperiled languages spoken among Arizona’s 21 Native American tribes.

The initiative has drawn fierce opposition from both Latino and Native American groups.

“You tell someone that their language is not good enough to be spoken and really you are saying that they are not good enough,” said Kathleen Green, education services manager for the Phoenix Indian Center.

Backed by the group English for the Children, Proposition 203 is a hybrid of the English-only proposal that California voters approved two years ago. It is bankrolled here by Ron Unz, the Palo Alto software millionaire who campaigned for Proposition 227, which dismantled bilingual education in California schools.

Anti-California Sentiments Stirred

The ballot initiative would establish English-only instruction in Arizona’s classrooms, where about 5% of students participate in bilingual education programs but far more speak another language at school.

The battle has stirred long-standing anti-California sentiments here. “We do not need a multimillionaire from California coming to our state to tell us how to vote,” said Rudolfo Perez Jr. of the Phoenix office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

During an emotional debate recently at Arizona State University Law School, Unz faced down his critics. He argued that bilingual education is a failed system. The English-only movement seeks to empower all children, Unz said, by teaching them English, which can be used as an engine for academic and financial achievement.

Unz, however, conceded he “never thought about” how the proposition would affect Native Americans.

Few Indian Students in Tribal Schools

Margaret Garcia-Dugan, co-chairwoman of the state’s English for the Children group, said she was under the impression that the tribes’ sovereignty would exempt them from English-only requirements.

That would be true if Native American children were being taught in tribal schools. The vast majority of Indian children in Arizona, however, are enrolled in public and charter schools that could be required to eliminate programs that teach in languages other than English.

“Eighty percent of our children are in public schools and would be directly impacted,” said Ivan Makil, president of the Salt River Indian Community in Phoenix, where the tribal languages Pima and Maricopa are taught.

Makil said Native Americans well remember the era from the 1860s to the 1960s when Indian children were placed in government-run boarding schools and punished for speaking their native language. “This is like history repeating itself.”

This generation of young Indians, especially those who live off the reservation, is quickly losing its culture and language to assimilation, tribal leaders say. Among the Pima, for example, a recent survey found only 20 primary speakers of the language.

Many Arizona tribes have instituted programs in elementary schools where instruction is split between English and native languages such as Navajo and Yaqui. As the children gain proficiency in both languages, the tribal language is phased out and English dominates. Once introduced, tribal leaders say, the native language will be fostered by use at home.

‘Kachina Speaks Hopi, Not English’

With language revitalization programs gaining a foothold in the last five years, leaders say, the timing of the measure could not be more painful.

“How will we practice our religion and our ceremonies?” asked Rosalie Talhongua Adams, who is Hopi. “Kachina a spirit speaks Hopi, not English.”

A number of tribes have passed resolutions condemning Proposition 203, and the initiative has spurred many Native Americans to register to vote. A recent rally at the state Capitol drew nearly 1,000 protesters, many of whom had driven overnight from remote reservations. The rally was called the largest Indian protest in Arizona in recent memory.

The opposition to Proposition 203 also has forged an unusual coalition between the politically dormant tribes and Latino organizations, who also fear their culture and language will be diminished.

If passed, Proposition 203 could be more strict than California’s English-only policy. California’s system still allows parents the option of placing a child in a bilingual program, but such an exemption could be harder to obtain in Arizona.

In Arizona, teachers and districts “may reject waiver requests without explanation or legal consequence,” according to the proposition.

In both states, children not sufficiently fluent in English are to be placed in English immersion classes for one year and then returned to mainstream studies.

“This is about learning English, the language of science and commerce,” said Garcia-Dugan, principal at Glendale High School. “This is about allowing minority children access to the American dream.”

The measure is expected to pass easily. A recent poll by KAET/Arizona State University showed a 71% approval rating.

All of the state’s major newspapers have called for the rejection of Proposition 203.

Latino and Native American legal groups are studying whether the proposal would violate federal law that protects tribal languages.

The sovereignty issue also is unresolved. It remains untested in California, where there are two school districts operating on tribal land, compared with 13 in Arizona, said Andrew L. Andreoli, director of American Indian Education for the California Department of Education.

Andreoli said there are no bilingual programs using tribal languages in California, home of 58,000 Native Anericans. Arizona has a Native American population of 380,000.

“If it passes,” said Wayne Holm of the Navajo Language Project, “there is going to be litigation and litigation and litigation.”

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