Native languages must be saved, educators say
Over several years, Native American educators and Utah tribal and state leaders have collaborated on a program offering Navajo and other native students courses on their own language, culture, history, government and character development.
It is a way for students who may know little about their heritage to learn a language and culture that are inseparable, says Clayton Long, bilingual education director in the San Juan School District.
"These are values that are passed on so a person's character develops the way it should," Long said at the recent Governor's Native American Summit at Utah Valley University. "It's how you present yourself as a part of the Navajo Nation."
The program is not confined to Navajo students, however. Educators in northeastern Utah have similar courses for Ute students, as did the western town of Ibapah for Goshute students at one time.
In the Salt Lake Valley, schools use a single classroom that serves about 60 students, some from the Richfield area. Long often travels back and forth from San Juan County to teach the class and, when he can't, connects with students over the Internet.
In the San Juan School District, which includes part of the Navajo Nation, K-6 students are taught by certified language teachers. In junior high and high school, the course becomes an elective competing with standard requirements. In both cases, the language courses are infused with regular classes, Long said.
Chuck Foster, the American Indian education specialist at the Utah State Office of Education, said outreach to other areas of Utah is essential.
"We're trying to polish it up, if you will, with outreach to students and getting endorsed Navajo teachers in outlying areas" such as the Washington, Iron and Sevier school districts," he said.
Non-native students also are welcome, Foster said.
"I think they do very well," he said. "Expand and improve that's the goal of our program."
One new development that will help the program is that the Rosetta Stone language learning system has released a Navajo version through its endangered language program.
"This year, that's the direction we're going to go," Foster said. "Clayton [Stone] will monitor progress through assessment and teaching."
But while Navajo language education is important, getting funds for all forms of education is essential, says Ceceilia Tso, director of the University of Utah's American Indian Teacher Education Collaboration.
She's working with Gov. Gary Herbert and Shirlee Silversmith, head of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, to promote legislation that would create and fund an Indian Education Act.
Arizona and New Mexico have such systems, although only New Mexico has funding for it.
"I'm involved because the highest need for Navajos and all tribes are native teachers," Tso said, adding that graduation rates are low and dropout rates are high.
"That's why the education act and the [native American] summit are so essential," Tso said. "It brings public awareness to Indian education."