Speaking in (Native) Tongues

Lost City Elementary School in Oklahoma is not the first school to offer a Native American language immersion program to its students, but it is one of the first public schools to do it. Diana West of The Christian Science Monitor reports that Lost City Elementary now offers a Cherokee language immersion program for three-year-olds, kindergartners, and first graders. Next year the program will expand to include second-graders.

In Lost City Elementary’s voluntary program all courses are taught in the Cherokee language and the teachers refer to the students by their Indian names. The goal is to preserve the Cherokee language, which Harry Oosahwee, the tribe’s language project supervisor, believes will die in one generation if something is not done immediately. West points out that only an estimated 8,000 people currently speak Cherokee.

One of the reasons the Lost City Elementary program is unique is that it demonstrates a state-sponsored departure from the United States’ institutional assimilation of Native American children. Starting in the 1800s, children were sent away to boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their languages or wearing their traditional clothing and hairstyles, says Stacy Teicher of The Christian Science Monitor. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Indian Nations won the right to contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to control these government schools.

Teicher says that the importance of native language and culturally sensitive teaching is catching on in the Southwest also. In the Flagstaff school district, Navajo language classes are offered. Flagstaff High School has a panel of ten Native American academic advisors that helps teachers with culturally sensitive subjects and helps develop culturally relevant courses. They also offer an elective Navajo history class after school. But even in Flagstaff, Native American students still have to battle prejudice, and very little of the mainstream curriculum touches on Indian history or culture.

Initially, Lost City’s program was met with some resistance because elders were concerned that children would be ridiculed (like they were when they were kids) for speaking their native language at a public school. However, the program is proving to not only serve as a way to preserve the language, but also as a source of pride. One community elder, in commenting about her great nephew, said: ‘Lane is learning what it is to be Cherokee and to be proud.’
Barb Jacobs

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