Several hundred Native Americans rallied at the state Capitol on Friday against a ballot initiative to dismantle bilingual education in Arizona, the largest Indian protest there in memory.
The two-hour rally, preceded by a march through downtown Phoenix, brought together children, elders and tribal leaders representing many of the state’s 21 federally recognized tribes in a demonstration of unity against the anti-bilingual education initiative.
Several aging members of the Navajo Nation who served as Code Talkers during World War II also participated as reminders of the role their language played in winning the war when messages transmitted in Navajo could not be deciphered by the Japanese.
“The Navajo language won the war,” said a sign carried by one of the protesters against Proposition 203, which would replace bilingual education in Arizona with a one-year English immersion program.
Although targeted primarily at Latino children classified as limited English speakers, many Native Americans fear the initiative could have the unintended consequence of eliminating programs on or near reservation schools aimed at saving tribal languages from extinction.
The timing of Proposition 203 is unfortunate, they said, because it comes just as Native American tribes in Arizona were beginning to gain state support for language revitalization programs.
They said the measure represents a throwback to the days when Native Americans were forced to abandon their centuries-old languages and cultures, a policy that they said led to many of the social ills plaguing reservations today.
“It’s that ‘kill the Indian save the man’ viewpoint,” said Rick Leonard, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Leonard develops learning materials for the tribe’s O’odham Piipaash language program.
Leaders of English for the Children, the group spearheading the campaign to pass Proposition 203, contend Native American tribes will be able to continue their language programs because tribal sovereignty will override the state measure.
But that assumption remains far from certain.
So far, a similar anti-bilingual education initiative approved by California voters in 1998 has had no effect on language programs on Indian reservations in that state, said Andrew Andreoli, who oversees Native American education for the California Department of Education and who is a member of the Hupa Tribe.
The Hupa and the Yurok tribes in northern California have continued language revitalization programs under the assumption that tribal sovereignty supersedes the state law, but no one has challenged them in court, Andreoli said.
He pointed out, however, that unlike in Arizona, the vast majority of the Native Americans belonging to the 104 federally recognized tribes in California speak English, and few speak their native tongue, eliminating the need for bilingual education programs on reservations.
In Arizona, there are 19,000 children on the Navajo Nation classified as limited English speakers who could be affected by Proposition 203, said William Holm, an education specialist for the tribe.
Many of the children from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe near Tucson attend bilingual Spanish-English programs in the public schools and receive instruction in their native Yaqui language, said Amelia Reyes, the tribe’s language and cultural preservation specialist.
State Sen. Jack Jackson, D-Window Rock, said he could not recall a larger Native American protest at the state Capitol since he was elected 16 years ago. Crowd estimates ranged from 400 to 750 people, said Debra Krol, of the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs.
Ron Carlos, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, said the tribe started programs on the reservation five years ago to help children learn native languages, Maricopa and Pima, before they are lost forever.
Carlos said he is afraid those tribal language programs could be dismantled if Proposition 203 passes.
That would be a shame, said Larry Schurz, special assistant to the superintendent of education. Only about 20 speakers of Maricopa remain.
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