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Native American Youth Discourses on
Language Shift and Retention: Ideological
Cross- currents and Their Implications for
Language Planning
Teresa L. McCarty a
, Mary Eunice Romero-Little b
& Ofelia Zepeda c
a
Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State
University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
b
Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe,
AZ, USA
c
Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Version of record first published: 22 Dec 2008.
To cite this article: Teresa L. McCarty , Mary Eunice Romero-Little & Ofelia Zepeda (2006): Native American
Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention: Ideological Cross- currents and Their Implications for
Language Planning, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9:5, 659-677
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2167/beb386.0
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Native American Youth Discourses on
Language Shift and Retention:
Ideological Cross-currents and Their
Implications for Language Planning
Teresa L. McCarty
Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State
University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Mary Eunice Romero-Little
Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe,
AZ, USA
Ofelia Zepeda
Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
This paper examines preliminary findings from an ongoing federally funded study
of Native language shift and retention in the US Southwest, focusing on in-depth
ethnographic interviews with Navajo youth. We begin with an overview of Native
American linguistic ecologies, noting the dynamic, variegated and complex nature of
language proficiencies and practices across a continuum of sociocultural settings. We
then examine two pairs of youth discourses that illuminate socialpsychological and
macro-structural influences on language practices. These discourses juxtapose
language identity with language endangerment, and language pride with language
shame. As such, they expose the ways in which language allegiance is tied to the
distribution of power and privilege in the larger society. Youth discourses, we argue,
represent a powerful call to action for communities and schools serving Native
American students. We conclude with the implications for future research and for
language education planning in Indigenous and other endangered-language communities.
doi: 10.2167/beb386.0
Keywords: Native American language eduation, indigenous languages,
language revitalisation, language planning, language ideologies, Native
American youth
When you first came to be as a child, the things that you were taught
were very strong … [But] the next generation, they don’t seem to want it.
That is why our language, our prayers, the words we used to speak
our words are not wanted anymore. (Navajo grandmother, interview,
January 1996)
Elders say we’re lost youth. No. [We just want] adults to take the
time … to try to encourage us … There’s always hope. (‘Jonathan’, 16-
year-old Navajo high school student, interview, May 2004)
1367-0050/06/05 659-19 $20.00/0 – 2006 T.L. McCarty et al.
The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism Vol. 9, No. 5, 2006
659
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Introduction
These reflections on language by a Navajo elder and youth poignantly
illustrate the challenges faced by Native American families and communities
in their efforts to maintain their heritage languages and cultures. In Navajo, the
first language of both speakers cited above, the terms for ‘language’ and
‘word’ are identical: saad. In the first excerpt, a Navajo elder laments the loss of
‘our language, our words we used to speak’ among the young. In the second
excerpt, a Navajo youth resists that loss, insisting ‘there’s always hope’.
Understanding Native youth and adult perspectives on heritage-language
shift and retention is central to an ongoing federally funded study being
carried out in the US Southwest. The Native Language Shift and Retention
Study responds to a 1998 executive order by then-President William J. Clinton,
calling for research to ‘evaluate the role of native language and culture in the
development of educational strategies’ for Native American students (Executive Order 13096, 1998, Section 2, [f][3]). As part of the executive order, a
working group composed of federal and non-governmental organisations
sponsored a series of regional forums and a national conference at which
recommendations for high-priority research topics were proposed. ‘Probably
no subject generates more interest and discussion than the idea of structuring
[American Indian and Alaska Native] education around the concepts and
language that lie at the core of tribal or village culture’, researchers closely
involved with this process observed (Strang et al., 2003: 4). Calling on
researchers to ‘work actively with the tribes and villages’ to conduct research
that is both nationally generalisable and locally responsive, the national
Research Agenda growing out of these forums seeks to address ‘what is and is
not successful as part of a larger school reform and improvement effort’
(Strang et al., 2003: 2).
Well informed and well implemented language education planning,
policies and programmes lie at the heart of such education reforms. Most
federal and state language education policies, however, are premised on the
assumption that language minority children enter school speaking a primary
language other than English.1 Putting aside for the moment the compensatory
and assimilationist aims of these policies, we must question the validity of the
premise itself for Native American learners. Increasingly, Native American
children enter school with English as their primary language. At the same
time, tribal/community languages continue to be an important part of
Indigenous linguistic ecologies, which typically include one or more tribal
languages, schooled or ‘pedagogised’ English, and Nativised varieties of
English.2 Effective language education policies and programmes must be
responsive to these unique sociolinguistic conditions and the language
practices they reflect and produce.
The Native Language Shift and Retention Study is tasked with examining
these conditions and practices ‘on the ground’. We are particularly concerned
with eliciting local understandings of and experiences with language shift
across a range of tribal-community contexts. What language attitudes and
ideologies prevail in these language shift settings? How do Native youth
identify with their heritage language and culture? What are their language
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proficiencies? What is the relationship among children’s language proficiencies, language attitudes/ideologies and school achievement? Four overarching
research questions guide this study:
(1) What role does the Native/heritage language play in the personal,
familial, community and school lives of American Indian youth?
(2) How do language loss and revitalisation factor into how well youth
perform in school, as measured by district-administered local and
national assessments?
(3) How might the findings from this study inform tribal language planning
and education initiatives?
(4) What are the lessons for state and national education policies and
minority language rights?
This is an action-oriented study with a strong social justice component. Our
assumption is that language is not only a resource to its speakers and
humankind (Ruiz, 1984), but that heritage language acquisition and development are fundamental human rights (Magga & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2003;
Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000, in press). Linguistic rights are part of a larger
democratic project in support of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
Hence, supporting tribes and Native communities in promoting their heritage
languages is a further goal of this research.
We begin with a brief overview of Native American linguistic ecologies,
noting the ramifications for language proficiencies. This is followed by a
description of the research methodology and contexts. We then examine a
select corpus of data from one school-community site, focusing on in-depth
ethnographic interviews with Navajo youth. These data are selected for
analysis because they embody both socialpsychological and macro-structural
influences on language practices. We characterise these as discourses,
‘stretches of language that ‘‘hang together’’’ in ways that are meaningful to
their users (Gee, 1996: 104), and which are inherently ideological; that is, they
situate language attitudes and practices socially and historically, indexing the
position of the speaker vis-a`-vis the social group and the larger society. As
such, these discourses expose the relations between language and identity, and
the ways in which language allegiance is tied to the distribution of power and
privilege in the larger society (Gee, 1996: 104). We conclude with a discussion
of the implications of this work for future research and Native American
language planning efforts.3
The Status of Native American Languages and Language
Proficiencies
The linguistic ecologies in which Native American students are growing up
are highly complex, variegated and not amenable to easy description or
assessment. Of 175 Indigenous languages still spoken in the USA, only 20 are
being naturally acquired as a first language by children (Krauss, 1998). The
historical causes of this language shift have been well studied, and we will not
repeat that work here.4 Suffice it to say that Native American languages, as
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Skutnabb-Kangas (2000: 222) characterises the process for minoritised
languages in general, have not fallen into disuse due to ‘natural’ causes;
‘they have been ‘‘helped’’ on their way.’ Colonial schooling designed to
‘remake Indian children into brown White citizens’ (Benally & Viri, 2005: 89)
has been a primary instrument for Native language eradication (Lomawaima
& McCarty, 2006).
In global terms, the contemporary situation of Native American
languages can be envisioned as a continuum, ranging from a few communities in which intergenerational language transmission persists, to those
in which the heritage language is spoken by the parental generation and
older, to those with only a handful of elderly Native-language speakers.
In all cases, language shift is under way. This continuum corresponds to
Fishman’s (1991) eight-point Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale
(GIDS). Krauss (1998) offers this classification for Native North American
languages:
. Class A: languages in which there are speakers of all generations;
. Class B: languages spoken by the parent generation and up;
. Class C: languages spoken by the grandparent generation and up; and
. Class D: languages spoken only by a few elderly persons.
The dynamics of language use and change ‘on the ground’, however, are not as
neat and tidy as a classificatory scheme might suggest. Multiple classifications
may apply across a single speech community. For example, Krauss (1998)
classifies Navajo and Tohono O’odham languages with relatively large
numbers of speakers in comparison with other Native American languages
as Class A, yet in some communities within the reservations in which they are
spoken, these languages are more accurately categorised as Class B or Class C.
Language vitality is influenced by numerous complicating factors: rural versus
urban lifestyles, locally available language education programmes and
materials, the number of Native-speaking teachers, and local and regional
opportunity structures vis-a`-vis the heritage language and culture, to name
only a few.
Within and across diverse local contexts, children’s language proficiencies,
their attitudes toward the heritage language and culture, and the relationship of language proficiencies and attitudes to school performance are not
well documented or understood. Adley-SantaMaria (1999: 17) notes that
the ‘(mis)education of Native American youth is one cause of the crisis
of language shift’. Bielenberg (2002) and Nicholas (2005) examine the familial,
communal and school-based dynamics impacting Hopi youth’s language
choices. Lee’s (1999) study of Navajo adolescents suggests that as they
aged, these youth became more aware of the endangered status of their
language; this may have led them to speak more Navajo with family members
as young adults (see also Lee & McLaughlin, 2001). Romero’s (2003) study
of child socialisation and language shift in Cochiti Pueblo documents
young people’s interest in learning Keres (the tribal language), although
most young parents were not fluent in Keres and were therefore raising their
children in English.
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What we do know is that even as more Native American children come to
school speaking English as a primary language, they continue to be
stigmatised as ‘limited English proficient’ (LEP) and, as a group, to fare
poorly in school. More than 10% of all Native pupils enrolled in US public
schools are identified as LEP. In federal schools overseen by the Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA), nearly 60% of all Native pupils are so identified
(Tippeconnic & Faircloth, 2002: 1). The goal of the Native Language Shift
and Retention Study is to interrogate these linguistic and educational
processes what Hill (2002: 219) calls ‘the human specifics of endangeredlanguage communities’.
Research Contexts and Methodology
Because of the important role of schools in Indigenous communities,
schools have been points of entry and access to each of four tribal schoolcommunity sites. All of the sites are in Arizona, a state in which 25% of the
land base is Indian reservation land, and in which more than 5% of the total
population is Native (US Census Bureau, 2005). Arizona also is home to several
of the most populous tribes in the USA (US Department of Commerce, 1990).
The state is representative of a wide range of Native American communities,
schools and language situations.
Table 1 outlines the characteristics of participating project sites. Reflecting
the larger linguistic ecology presented in the previous section, the sites can be
envisioned across a continuum. At one end of the continuum is a small,
reservation-interior Navajo community with speakers of all ages, including
some elderly monolingual Navajo speakers. Navajo is a member of the huge
Athabaskan language family, which counts speakers from the sub-Arctic to the
southern Plains. The Navajo Nation has the second largest tribal population
(more than 250,000) and the largest reservation in the USA (25,000 square
miles, stretching over parts of three Southwestern states). According to the
2000 US Census, Navajo is spoken in every state in the union, with 178,014
speakers (Benally & Viri, 2005: 88). Despite these facts, the Navajo language is
at a crossroads, with fewer children learning it as a primary language each
generation (Benally & Viri, 2005). Our Navajo site includes a federally funded
community school serving approximately 600 students in pre-kindergarten
through Grade 12.
In central Arizona, we are working with two communities and their
community schools. Two languages are represented there: Akimel O’odham,
a Uto-Aztecan language, is also called Pima and is by far the largest speech
community on the reservation; Pii Paash is a Yuman language, also called
Maricopa. Both languages are considered ‘moribund’, having few or no child
speakers. Pii Paash is seriously endangered, with only a few elderly
speakers. The fourth project site is a Native American charter school5
serving primarily Tohono O’odham students (Tohono O’odham and Akimel
O’odham are mutually intelligible languages). Tohono O’odham is spoken
by members of the 20,000-member Tohono O’odham Nation in Southern
Arizona; there are still child speakers, although Tohono O’odham, too, is
increasingly endangered.
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Table 1 Characteristics of participating sites
Tribal group Tribal
population
Heritage/
community
language(s)
Language vitality
(Krauss, 1998)
Setting School type No.
schools
No.
students
Navajo 250,000 Navajo Class A 1 reservationinterior
community
Pre-K-12, federally
funded community
school
3 600
Akimel
O’odham/
Pii Paash
15,000 Akimel O’odham
(Pima); Pii Paash
(Maricopa)
Akimel O’odham:
Class B
C; Pii
Paash: Class D
2 reservation
communities,
both near large
metropolitan
area
Pre-K-8, federally
funded community
school
2 500
Tohono
O’odham
20,000 Tohono O’odham Class A
B Reservation and
urban
9 12 public charter
school
1 150
Summary 4 tribal
groups
4 Native languages Class A
D Reservation and
urban
Pre-K-12, federally
funded and public/
charter schools
6 1250
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At each site, we have negotiated research protocols according to school,
tribal, university and federal norms. This has been a labour-intensive process,
but one that has resulted in a strong degree of local participation in and
ownership over the work. ‘If a researcher wants to know the ethics of doing
research in a … Native community’, Lomawaima (2000: 15) writes, ‘they must
first ask, then listen’. Thus, a key component of the project is the involvement
of Native co-researchers at each site teachers and paraprofessionals we call
Community Research Collaborators or CRCs. The CRCs have been instrumental to all phases of the research, facilitating entre´e and access through
tribal councils and school boards, helping to design and validate research
protocols, assisting in the conduct of in-depth interviews and the administration of project questionnaires and participating in university-based training on
language education planning, heritage language immersion and ethnographic
research methods. As suggested by the national Research Agenda, CRCs are
the critical change agents positioned to apply research findings to local
language education efforts once the study ends.
The overarching methodology for this project is ethnographic; prolonged
participant observation and in-depth interviews designed to elicit Native or
‘emic’ perspectives are primary research procedures. Data collection also
includes teacher, parent and student questionnaires, and locally maintained
school achievement data.
To date we have administered more than 500 questionnaires, conducted
hundreds of hours of observations of language use and teaching inside and
outside of schools, collected achievement data from three school sites, and
conducted 221 in-depth interviews, including 160 with adults and 61 with
youth in Grades 4 through 12. In structuring interviews, we have adapted
Seidman’s (1998) format, condensing his three-interview sequence into single
6090-min interviews that include:
(1) a focused life history, concentrating on language learning inside and
outside of school;
(2) details and observations of language use at home, in the school and in
the community; and
(3) normative assessments of the role of families, community members,
tribal government and the school in local language planning efforts.
To identify research participants, we have been guided by the recommendations of local CRCs, seeking a balance of Native and non-Native speakers,
males and females, and individuals of different ages and professional backgrounds. All interviews have been audiotaped and many have been conducted
with CRCs. For interviews conducted in the Native language, we have relied
on Native-speaking CRCs and the skills of bilingual, biliterate Native speakers
to translate and transcribe the data.
In the sections that follow, we examine two discourse pairings that
emerged from thematic analyses of interviews with Navajo youth, their
teachers and parents. One pairing juxtaposes language identity and endangerment; the second juxtaposes contradictory discourses of language pride
and shame. All data are from our Navajo site, which we call Beautiful
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Mountain (all names are pseudonyms). Beautiful Mountain is a reservationinterior community of about 1500, with 600 students served in three
school facilities (see Table 1). Wage labour at the school, in nearby mines,
construction and the railroad; and tribally or federally funded health and
social services constitute primary sources of income. Family incomes remain
well below national poverty levels, however, and the traditional subsistence
activities of ranching, small-scale farming, and sheep and goat herding
continue to have economic value.
Discourses of Language Identity and Endangerment: ‘The
Language Needs More Takers’
Some researchers have posited that the decline in Native American
languages is attributable to a general pattern of ‘denial’ about the endangered
state of these languages (Krauss, 1998), or to ‘collective ignorance and apathy’
(Benally & Viri, 2005: 98). In our work across project sites, however, we have
found not denial or apathy, but rather widespread concern about the fragile
state of the heritage language. Moreover, discourses of endangerment
intertwine with discourses of Indigenous identity. A young father of four
and teacher assistant at Beautiful Mountain School asserted, ‘We’re Navajo.
That’s our language. We need to keep on talking [Navajo].’ A Navajo school
administrator reflected, ‘The language, that’s what makes you a Navajo.’
Projecting into the future, another Navajo educator said:
Your child some day … she is going to look back and say, ‘Gosh, I am
Navajo and I don’t know anything. I can’t speak my language. I don’t
know who is related to me. I don’t know my community.’
A parent and school staff member said (in Navajo):
My parents handed down the values of the Navajo culture and tradition
to us and that’s what brought us forth to this day … so I value the
language and culture. I wish for us not to lose the language for our
children’s sake … We are made up with our language … Who will we
be when we have lost our language?
The themes of ‘language as key to identity’ and as ‘carrier of culture and
worldview’ are not new in discussions of language shift. As Hinton (2002: 152)
notes, these are among the most prevalent reasons given for why language
revitalisation is important (see also Fishman, 1991, 2001; Hornberger, 1996;
May, 1999). What has not been well studied is whether or how these themes
resonate with Native youth. We have found young people to be remarkably
articulate and even passionate in addressing these issues. A young man of 20,
for example, stated that knowing Navajo language and culture is the
foundation ‘to go on for better things in life’:
It gives you strength … to know where you’re coming from and to know
your self-identity and your culture … you will always come through
obstacles with your foundation being there to back you up.
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Asked to speculate on the future of Navajo, he added, ‘We [Navajo people,
Dine´] have survived a lot of hard things trying to carry on the Navajo
language … I think it will go on.’
To explore youth discourses on language endangerment and identity in
greater depth, we introduce readers first to Samuel, a 17-year-old high school
senior when he was interviewed in 2004. Samuel learned to speak Navajo and
Apache (a closely related Athabaskan language) at an early age, but
considered Navajo his primary language and himself the ‘strongest’ speaker
of Navajo among his five siblings. He also claimed to know ‘a little French’ and
‘some Hopi’ (a Uto-Aztecan language spoken by Hopis whose reservation lies
within the borders of the Navajo Nation). By his own and his teachers’
accounts, Samuel was doing well in school. He aspired to become a medical
doctor and to return to the Navajo reservation to treat diabetes, a condition that
afflicted his grandmother and which has reached epidemic proportions in
Native American communities. Asked whether ‘knowing and keeping Navajo’
was important to him, Samuel replied, ‘Very important’.
Interviewer: Why?
Samuel: Because I get the best of both worlds … I want to become
a doctor. And to do that, I have to know how to
communicate with patients in Navajo and … in English.
And not just because I want to go into medicine, it’s
important [to know Navajo] because the language is dying
out not slowly, as it used to be, but it’s going very
vigorously now.
Asked whether he would feel ‘less Navajo’ if he could not speak the
language, Samuel averred that ‘no matter if you speak it or not, you’re
Navajo … But traditionally, if you’re not speaking Navajo, you [aren’t] a Navajo.’
Like other young people and many adults in our study, Samuel commented
on the fact that Navajo-speaking parents were not transmitting the language to
their children.
There’s a lot of [children] that aren’t even being taught. Their parents
can speak Navajo, but they don’t do it inside the home. They would
do it [outside the home], but they wouldn’t even teach their
children Navajo … And that, in a way, kind of makes me angry, because … Navajo is supposed to be spoken at all times in the house, … and these
parents, … they’re Navajo, and they should be speaking Navajo …
We will return to Samuel’s narrative in the following section, but we turn
now to an interview with Jonathan, a 16-year-old ninth grader at Beautiful
Mountain School when he was interviewed in 2004. A pensive young man,
Jonathan initially reported that he was ‘learning’ Navajo in school. However,
during an interview that lasted more than two hours, he revealed that his first
language was, in fact, Navajo. For years, he said, he had been ‘caught up in the
confusion of learning English, having to form those words in my head’. His
first elementary teacher, who was Navajo, had belittled him for his accented
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and ungrammatical English. This made Jonathan’s early goal in school ‘just
survival, how to cope in this colonial world we live in’. Despite these negative
school experiences, Jonathan viewed Navajo as integral to his identity and
ability ‘to bring about some change in the world, in my own [Navajo]
nation … because we need a strong [Native] community’. Asked if Navajo was
important to him, Jonathan said:
Yes, it helps me, having that as my first language … The Navajo, it helps
separate the side … of where all these [traditional Navajo] teachings
come in. That helps me not get too far in, not to lose the identity of who I
am, of where I come from … It’s mainly a search for who you are … It’s
your outlook, you know.
Jonathan linked knowledge of Navajo to Navajoness and stewardship of the
land:
We’re so much a part of the land, you know … It’s hard to see
[destruction of the land/loss of language]. It really hurts me … It’s a
spiritual anguish.
Asked what would happen ‘if there is no Navajo language anymore’, Jonathan
responded: ‘It’s like taking away the spirit; it’s like taking away a real big part
of who you are’.
Interviewer: Do you think Navajo will be spoken … 40 years from
now …?
Jonathan: I don’t really see people talking to their children in
Navajo … I have some hope, that’s all I can say,
because without hope … I wouldn’t have a reason … [I] hope that someday we can go about living
with the sacredness a little longer.
In Jonathan’s, Samuel’s and other young people’s discourses, sentimental
and even sacred attachments to the Navajo language are recurring themes.
These sentiments also appear in our interviews with adults at Beautiful
Mountain and other project sites: ‘I want them [children] to know you’re
… Indians’, an Akimel O’odham teacher stressed. ‘That’s your culture. That’s
who you are.’ A CRC maintained, ‘Our language … is the number-one source
of our soul, our pride, our being, our strength, and our identity.’ A Navajo
educator described the ability to speak Navajo as a ‘gift’, equating it with
‘getting back down to roots, … being able to say, ‘‘Yes, … I’m proud to say I’m
Navajo.’’’ ‘The language’, this educator said, ‘it needs more takers, somebody to
hold it up high.’
Contradictory Discourses of Language Pride and Shame:
‘You Forsake Who You Are to Accommodate the
Mainstream Life’
The previous section reveals the ethnolinguistic pride many young people
and adults attach to knowing and speaking the heritage language. ‘I’m proud
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that I can read and write Navajo’, one young woman in our study stated.
‘That’s how we were created.’ Many youth at Beautiful Mountain also viewed
their bilingualism as having an instrumental value as helping them succeed
in school and later life. This theme is apparent in Samuel’s interview; to
become a medical doctor, he said, ‘I have to know how to communicate with
patients in Navajo and how to do it in English.’ Asked if knowing Navajo
helped him in school, Samuel reflected:
Yeah, … just comparing the differences [between Navajo and
English], and the culture itself … when I go to the English class,
I can really tell the difference, and how Navajo is so descriptive, and
English isn’t.
A female senior reported that Navajo helped her in school ‘because you can
compare the two different languages’. Another student said that knowing
Navajo helped her because ‘when you try to pronounce something in English,
you just say it [first] in Navajo. And [then] I write it down [in English]’.6 This
same girl, who aspired to become a paediatrician, said that knowing Navajo
would be helpful in her career ‘cause kids [patients] might speak Navajo. And
their mom [might speak Navajo as well]’.
But not all youth at Beautiful Mountain shared these positive attachments to
Navajo language and culture. Jamie was 18 when he was interviewed in 2004.
Having grown up in a reservation border town, his primary language was
English. Jamie insisted that Navajo language and culture were ‘just the past’.
Distancing himself from his Navajoness, he stated that knowing Navajo is
important ‘because it’s their [Navajos’] culture’. Asked if he believed there had
been a decline in the use of Navajo among young people, Jamie replied: ‘Yes,
‘cuz kids don’t really care anymore’. At the same time, Jamie was trying to
learn Navajo in school.
These discourses reveal contradictory ideological currents that run throughout our interviews with Navajo youth and adults. A teacher aide reported that
a few of her students had insisted, ‘I’m not going to learn [Navajo]. Navajo’s
nothing. I hate it.’ During one phase of our fieldwork, school personnel were
assessing students’ Navajo language proficiencies. Describing her interactions
with students in one secondary classroom, the Navajo teacher charged with
administering the assessment reported:
When we were talking [to students] in Navajo they were … making
fun of us … and it really frustrated me, and I told them, this is very
sad, the way your attitude is towards your language and your
culture, … the way you are putting your language down…I told them
to really think about it because … every single one of them, they are
Navajo. ‘You are Navajo’ [I said to them], ‘take a look at yourself. If
you are laughing about your language or your culture, you are
laughing about your parents, you are laughing about your grandparents … you are Navajo and you should be proud of who you are
and your identity.’
After administering the assessment, the teacher found, to her surprise, that
students ‘knew the language but were just ashamed of it’.
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These discourses were further illuminated in interview segments in which
individuals were asked to estimate the proportion of Beautiful Mountain
students who were proficient Navajo speakers. With a few exceptions, adults
uniformly placed the number at 3050%. The teacher whose interview
excerpt appears above, for instance, was initially convinced that none of the
students she was testing could comprehend the most basic Navajo terms.
Another bilingual educator maintained that ‘No one speaks Navajo. They
only speak English now.’ Adolescents, on the other hand, expressed a very
different view:
Interviewer: In school, what percentage of the kids are fluent speakers
of Navajo?
Student 1: 80%.
Student 2: Probably 75%.
Student 3: 75%.
Student 4: 80%.
Student 5: Everybody knows Navajo out here.
Each of these responses was recorded in a separate, individual interview. The
responses were typical of Beautiful Mountain youth. As these data reveal,
there was wide divergence in how youth and adults responded to questions
about language proficiencies among the young, with youth consistently
providing much higher estimates. Recognising that self-assessments of
language proficiency are problematic, the divergent responses of youth and
adults nonetheless signify local perceptions of language vitality that have
important implications for language choices. A bilingual adult who believes
the child to whom she or he is speaking has little knowledge of or interest in
using Navajo is likely to address the child in English. For their part, youth may
possess greater Native language proficiency than they show, ‘hiding’ it out of
shame or embarrassment. The net effect is to curtail opportunities for rich,
natural adultchild interaction in the heritage language. As Samuel explained:
Well, … a lot of [youth] tend to hide [their Native language ability] … they put a fac¸ade on, and they … try to make teachers believe that
they speak primarily [English] and weren’t exposed to Navajo.
Asked how he thought students at his school felt about speaking Navajo,
Samuel stated:
They probably think it’s important, but … they’re judged by it by other
people that speak English more clear than they do and they just kind of
feel dirty about the whole thing, and that’s why they put on the
fake … and try to make it sound like they speak more English than they
do Navajo …
For some of his peers, Samuel claimed, speaking Navajo stigmatises one as
‘uneducated, and they haven’t experienced anything in the world’.
This was confirmed in interviews with adults. ‘Many of the kids around
here do speak Navajo’, a Navajo school administrator stated:
670 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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A lot of them fake not wanting to speak Navajo. I knew. They’re
ashamed. I caught a few students who claim they only speak English
[but] there are hundreds who are fluent Navajo speakers.
A bilingual teacher assistant reported that her students ‘pretend that their
parents are all educated’, implying that parents speak only English at home.
‘And some of the parents don’t even speak English!’ the teacher assistant
exclaimed. In parentteacher conferences, she had been surprised to hear
parents report that their child who claimed not to know Navajo had been
raised in a Navajo-language environment. A mother whose primary language
was Navajo reported that her 22-year-old son refused to speak Navajo:
He’ll say, ‘Why do I have to speak Navajo? … It’s a new world. We’re
more into technology, we’re into the bilaga´ana [White, English-speaking]
world. I don’t have to speak my language … We want to go forward, not
backward.’
Interestingly, this mother’s 17-year-old daughter told her, ‘I want to go
forward. I want to keep my language too.’
How can we understand these contradictory discourses? Jonathan provided
a remarkably sophisticated postcolonial analysis, which he referred to as the
‘Long Walk Syndrome’. In 1864, 7000 Navajo people their sheep herds and
farms destroyed in a federal ‘scorched earth’ campaign were marched at
bayonet point by the US cavalry 300 miles across wintry plains to a
concentration camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico (called Hwe´eldi in Navajo).
Hundreds of people perished along the way, many at the hands of soldiers;
thousands more died as a result of their incarceration. Four years later,
acknowledging Fort Sumner as a ‘failed experiment’, the federal government
released the 2000 survivors, dispossessing them of all but a fraction of their
original homelands. Recalling these events, Jonathan said:
Like I said, this Long Walk syndrome … we’re afraid to be punished,
we’re afraid that someone will whip us in the back … you forsake who
you are, you give up having to learn Navajo … [You] give all that up, in
order to accommodate the mainstream life … That’s been colonised in
the mind.
‘Many of these kids know how to speak Navajo’, Jonathan asserted, ‘but many
times they might be ashamed, or got that kind of self-hate’
It’s been pumped into them. It’s not something natural. It’s being told
Navajo is stupid … to speak Indian is the way of the devil, that kind of
thing…and many times, the older people will encourage English so
[their children] can make it in the White man’s world…Like I said, for
me, it [early school experiences] kind of confused me. Where was I in the
world?
The psychosocial and linguistic consequences of genocide, colonisation and
language repression have been documented for speech communities around
the world. Writing of ‘language shame’ among Garifuna children in Belize,
Bonner (2001: 86) notes that the cause is not language per se, but rather the
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 671
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marginalisation of Garifuna and ‘the association of Garifuna ethnic identity
with poverty and low social status’. Reese and Goldenberg (2006: 25) describe
similar processes for Spanish speakers in southern California. In a collection of
life histories reflecting the multiple ‘face[t]s’ of heritage language loss,
Kouritzin (1999) demonstrates the further complicity of racism and linguicism.
‘I grew up feeling ashamed to be Chinese, and of course, to speak Cantonese’,
a young woman of Canadian-born Cantonese parents recalled, remembering
the taunts by her classmates of ‘Chinky, Chinky Chinamen’ (Kouritzin, 1999:
43). ‘You shame people away from their language’, a Cree artist and writer told
Kouritzin (1999: 6667):
… you deal with it by speaking English, and that way you don’t have to
face the hurt of the loss … you hide behind the language of the
dominant society for a while … thinking you’re cool because you speak
English, you’re cool because you don’t speak [the Native language]
anymore. It’s better because now you’re white, right?
Conclusions and Implications for Language Revitalisation
and Maintenance
Youth and adult discourses from Beautiful Mountain implicate a complex
array of ideological forces that underpin heritage-language shift and retention
among the young. On the one hand, many youth express pride in their
heritage language, fusing it solidly to their senses of self. For these young
people, the language is a tool for negotiating multiple languages and cultural
worlds, and a foundation to ‘to go on for better things in life’. Further, as
Samuel’s discourse reveals, youth recognise that ‘the language is … [declining]
very vigorously now’. On the other hand, some youth have internalised the
message conveyed and legitimated by racialised societal discourses and
marginalising practices that speaking Navajo is an emblem of shame that
must be renounced. For these youth, (marginalised) Navajo is linked with
‘backwardness’ and (privileged) English is associated with modernity and
opportunity; youth feel they must make an eitheror choice between language
affiliations.
The sociolinguistic dynamics at Beautiful Mountain are in many ways
unique among our project sites. Beautiful Mountain is a fairly conservative,
reservation-interior community, and we suspect that the situation there also
differs in some important respects from that of reservation bordertown
communities. These differences notwithstanding, the ideological cross-currents reflected in youth discourses at Beautiful Mountain have been noted for
other endangered-language communities, and language planning challenges
faced there are widely shared.
These challenges are compounded by the global spread of English and the
growing standards movement in US schools. According to youth and adults in
our study, these pressures are forcing schools to abandon heritage-language
instruction. ‘The school can spend some time teaching Navajo’, a Beautiful
Mountain teacher stated, ‘but we can’t be bogged down, … we have so many
requirements to meet.’ Another teacher remarked, ‘We don’t have time to teach
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Navajo. We’ve been told to teach to the standards.’ Youth are keenly aware of
these pressures. ‘English’, Jonathan asserted, ‘that’s always taking over … It’s
just hard to have … a Native thing going. Because we’re run by the state, and
we’re told to do these tests and everything.’
Despite the challenges, it seems clear from this preliminary analysis that
many Native youth are deeply concerned about the future of their heritage
language. It also seems evident that in the Navajo case, youth may possess
greater heritage-language proficiency than they demonstrate or than adults
credit. Youth interests in retaining their heritage language and their (often
intentionally hidden) heritage-language proficiencies constitute critical resources for Indigenous language revitalisation and maintenance efforts.
All participants in our study stated that those efforts must begin with
parents and families in the home. ‘Tell the parents to let the kids speak Navajo
when they’re born’, the 13-year-old girl who aspired to become a peadiatrician
told us. A bilingual teacher provided this insightful commentary:
The most important thing is that it is up to us. As parents we have an
opinion about it and the responsibility belongs to us, we, the mothers
and fathers. And our leaders have ownership to part of it too. How might
they be thinking about all of this for us? … We are called Indigenous and
we are looked at as such … I want it to remain that way in the
future … You decide not to let them [outsiders] take away your
language to let it die.
We concur with these sentiments, but recognise that parents and families need
support if their efforts are to have the desired effects. Writing about her native
Hopi language, Sheilah Nicholas (2005: 36) describes this challenge as
reinvigorating ‘the community ethic of ‘‘putting our hearts together for a
common purpose’’’. This involves recognition ‘that the major upheaval of the
Hopi way of life has left them with little alternative but to … reimagine a way
of life that accommodates changes from within the community’ (Nicholas,
2005: 36). Hualapai educator Lucille Watahomigie (1995: 191) speaks of the
need for ‘reverse brainwashing’: educating community members ‘on the
importance and priority of the values and knowledge embodied in our
culture’. Romero’s (2003) and Sims’s (2001) research on Keres, the heritage
language of the New Mexico Pueblos of Cochiti and Acoma, illustrates the
ways in which community language surveys can open new possibilities for
dialogue and change:
On the one hand, findings [from the surveys] pointed to the possibility of
the loss of the Keres language within the next several decades or
sooner…On the other hand, the findings revealed that there remained a
considerable number of fluent speakers … and, if revitalization efforts
were initiated promptly and carefully, language shift could be stemmed
and even reversed. (Romero & McCarty, 2006: 11)
Much more ‘on the ground’ research is needed on these processes and their
impacts. Further research also is needed on the relationship of language
revitalisation to American Indian student achievement, a focus of the present
study. There are many promising precedents that already have shown positive
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 673
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correlations between heritage-language learning and student achievement,
among them Native-language immersion programmes in Hawai’i (Warner,
2001; Wilson & Kamana¯, 2001) and at Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation
(Arviso & Holm, 2001; Holm & Holm, 1995; see also Burnaby & Reyhner, 2002;
Huss et al., 2003; May, 1999; May & Aikman, 2003; McCarty & Zepeda, 1998).
We conclude by returning to Jonathan’s fiercely hopeful words, quoted in
the epigraph that begins this paper. Most youth in our study indicated that
they value the heritage language, view it as integral to their senses of self, want
and expect adults to teach it to them, and employ it as a strategic tool to
facilitate their English language learning in school. Native youth discourses
problematise a monolingual English status quo, calling upon adults to respond
by creating opportunities to learn in and through the heritage language. As
expressions of youth concerns about the future of their people, their language
and their culture, youth discourses constitute potent testimony capable of
informing local, tribal, state and national language education planning and
policy.
Language policies and practices are human-built and thus malleable to
change. Youth have much to teach us about the strategies we might employ in
creating policies and practices that support heritage-language retention. Our
role, then, is to listen and to act.
Acknowledgements
We wish to acknowledge support from the US Department of Education,
Institute of Education Sciences, for providing the funding for the Native
Language Shift and Retention Study. We also thank the CRCs, research
assistants, and the Alice Wiley Snell Endowment for Education Policy Studies
for support of the senior author’s work on the project. All data, statements,
opinions, and conclusions or implications in this paper solely reflect the view
of the authors and research participants, and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the funding agency, tribes or their tribal councils, the Arizona Board
of Regents or Arizona State University, under whose auspices the project
operates. This information is presented in the pursuit of academic research
and is published in this volume solely for educational and research purposes.
Pursuant to our agreement with the Arizona State University Internal Review
Board, this paper may not be reproduced in any medium, transmitted or
distributed, in whole or in part, without the authors’ prior written consent.
Correspondence
Any correspondence should be directed to Teresa L. McCarty, Division of
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State University, PO Box
872411, Tempe, 43 85287-2411, USA ([email protected]).
Notes
1. This excludes the 1990/1992 Native American Languages Act (NALA), which
supports the teaching of Native American languages as second languages. Funding
for NALA, however, is miniscule in comparison to that available under other
federal legislation that has historically supported some form of bilingual education
for students whose first language is not English (i.e. the Bilingual Education Act
674 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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[BEA] of 1968). With the passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the BEA
was recast as the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and
Academic Achievement Act. Although this legislation includes a provision for
instructional programmes for Native American children studying Indigenous
languages, such programmes are clearly not intended to promote, revitalise or
maintain those languages. The legislation specifies that the outcomes of these
programmes ‘shall be increased English proficiency’ (Sec. 3216).
2. The metaphor of linguistic ecology comes from Haugen (1972), who traces it to
Voegelin and Voegelin (1964). Our concern is with a specific aspect of this
metaphor: language endangerment. As Hornberger (2003: 321) notes, the focus on
language endangerment is not only about studying and describing language loss,
but about counteracting it (see also Mu¨ hlhau¨ sler, 1996).
3. In Gee’s (1996) framework, (lower-case) discourses constitute and are constituted
by (upper-case) Discourses ‘ways of being in the world, … a sort of ‘‘identity
kit’’’ or way of using language that identifies one as a member of a social group
(Gee, 1996: 143). In the present analysis, we examine the ways in which Native
youth discourses on heritage languages reflect and constitute Discourses. This is
not a ‘discourse analysis’ in the more technical and linguistic sense employed by
Gee and others (i.e. analysis of prosody, cohesion, contextualisation, organisation).
Rather, we are concerned with youth discourses as manifestations of ideologies
about language that in turn have an impact on language practices and choices.
4. For more on this, see Benally and Viri (2005), Lomawaima and McCarty (2006:
ch. 7), McCarty (2002a, 2002b: ch. 13) and Watahomigie and McCarty (1996).
5. Charter schools are state-funded schools linked through formal agreements to
authorising entities such as public school systems, but chartered by a distinctive
mission. In the case of this charter school site, the mission is to serve as an
academically rigorous, bicultural, community-based high school for Native youth.
6. What these youth are describing is metalinguistic awareness, an ability developed
in the context of bi/multilingualism that has been shown to enhance cognitive
flexibility.
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Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism

This article was downloaded by: [University of California, San Diego]
On: 29 March 2013, At: 14:18
Publisher: Routledge
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Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
International Journal of Bilingual Education
and Bilingualism
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information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rbeb20
Native American Youth Discourses on
Language Shift and Retention: Ideological
Cross- currents and Their Implications for
Language Planning
Teresa L. McCarty a
, Mary Eunice Romero-Little b
& Ofelia Zepeda c
a
Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State
University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
b
Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe,
AZ, USA
c
Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Version of record first published: 22 Dec 2008.
To cite this article: Teresa L. McCarty , Mary Eunice Romero-Little & Ofelia Zepeda (2006): Native American
Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention: Ideological Cross- currents and Their Implications for
Language Planning, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9:5, 659-677
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2167/beb386.0
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the use of this material.
Native American Youth Discourses on
Language Shift and Retention:
Ideological Cross-currents and Their
Implications for Language Planning
Teresa L. McCarty
Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State
University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Mary Eunice Romero-Little
Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe,
AZ, USA
Ofelia Zepeda
Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
This paper examines preliminary findings from an ongoing federally funded study
of Native language shift and retention in the US Southwest, focusing on in-depth
ethnographic interviews with Navajo youth. We begin with an overview of Native
American linguistic ecologies, noting the dynamic, variegated and complex nature of
language proficiencies and practices across a continuum of sociocultural settings. We
then examine two pairs of youth discourses that illuminate socialpsychological and
macro-structural influences on language practices. These discourses juxtapose
language identity with language endangerment, and language pride with language
shame. As such, they expose the ways in which language allegiance is tied to the
distribution of power and privilege in the larger society. Youth discourses, we argue,
represent a powerful call to action for communities and schools serving Native
American students. We conclude with the implications for future research and for
language education planning in Indigenous and other endangered-language communities.
doi: 10.2167/beb386.0
Keywords: Native American language eduation, indigenous languages,
language revitalisation, language planning, language ideologies, Native
American youth
When you first came to be as a child, the things that you were taught
were very strong … [But] the next generation, they don’t seem to want it.
That is why our language, our prayers, the words we used to speak
our words are not wanted anymore. (Navajo grandmother, interview,
January 1996)
Elders say we’re lost youth. No. [We just want] adults to take the
time … to try to encourage us … There’s always hope. (‘Jonathan’, 16-
year-old Navajo high school student, interview, May 2004)
1367-0050/06/05 659-19 $20.00/0 – 2006 T.L. McCarty et al.
The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism Vol. 9, No. 5, 2006
659
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Introduction
These reflections on language by a Navajo elder and youth poignantly
illustrate the challenges faced by Native American families and communities
in their efforts to maintain their heritage languages and cultures. In Navajo, the
first language of both speakers cited above, the terms for ‘language’ and
‘word’ are identical: saad. In the first excerpt, a Navajo elder laments the loss of
‘our language, our words we used to speak’ among the young. In the second
excerpt, a Navajo youth resists that loss, insisting ‘there’s always hope’.
Understanding Native youth and adult perspectives on heritage-language
shift and retention is central to an ongoing federally funded study being
carried out in the US Southwest. The Native Language Shift and Retention
Study responds to a 1998 executive order by then-President William J. Clinton,
calling for research to ‘evaluate the role of native language and culture in the
development of educational strategies’ for Native American students (Executive Order 13096, 1998, Section 2, [f][3]). As part of the executive order, a
working group composed of federal and non-governmental organisations
sponsored a series of regional forums and a national conference at which
recommendations for high-priority research topics were proposed. ‘Probably
no subject generates more interest and discussion than the idea of structuring
[American Indian and Alaska Native] education around the concepts and
language that lie at the core of tribal or village culture’, researchers closely
involved with this process observed (Strang et al., 2003: 4). Calling on
researchers to ‘work actively with the tribes and villages’ to conduct research
that is both nationally generalisable and locally responsive, the national
Research Agenda growing out of these forums seeks to address ‘what is and is
not successful as part of a larger school reform and improvement effort’
(Strang et al., 2003: 2).
Well informed and well implemented language education planning,
policies and programmes lie at the heart of such education reforms. Most
federal and state language education policies, however, are premised on the
assumption that language minority children enter school speaking a primary
language other than English.1 Putting aside for the moment the compensatory
and assimilationist aims of these policies, we must question the validity of the
premise itself for Native American learners. Increasingly, Native American
children enter school with English as their primary language. At the same
time, tribal/community languages continue to be an important part of
Indigenous linguistic ecologies, which typically include one or more tribal
languages, schooled or ‘pedagogised’ English, and Nativised varieties of
English.2 Effective language education policies and programmes must be
responsive to these unique sociolinguistic conditions and the language
practices they reflect and produce.
The Native Language Shift and Retention Study is tasked with examining
these conditions and practices ‘on the ground’. We are particularly concerned
with eliciting local understandings of and experiences with language shift
across a range of tribal-community contexts. What language attitudes and
ideologies prevail in these language shift settings? How do Native youth
identify with their heritage language and culture? What are their language
660 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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proficiencies? What is the relationship among children’s language proficiencies, language attitudes/ideologies and school achievement? Four overarching
research questions guide this study:
(1) What role does the Native/heritage language play in the personal,
familial, community and school lives of American Indian youth?
(2) How do language loss and revitalisation factor into how well youth
perform in school, as measured by district-administered local and
national assessments?
(3) How might the findings from this study inform tribal language planning
and education initiatives?
(4) What are the lessons for state and national education policies and
minority language rights?
This is an action-oriented study with a strong social justice component. Our
assumption is that language is not only a resource to its speakers and
humankind (Ruiz, 1984), but that heritage language acquisition and development are fundamental human rights (Magga & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2003;
Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000, in press). Linguistic rights are part of a larger
democratic project in support of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
Hence, supporting tribes and Native communities in promoting their heritage
languages is a further goal of this research.
We begin with a brief overview of Native American linguistic ecologies,
noting the ramifications for language proficiencies. This is followed by a
description of the research methodology and contexts. We then examine a
select corpus of data from one school-community site, focusing on in-depth
ethnographic interviews with Navajo youth. These data are selected for
analysis because they embody both socialpsychological and macro-structural
influences on language practices. We characterise these as discourses,
‘stretches of language that ‘‘hang together’’’ in ways that are meaningful to
their users (Gee, 1996: 104), and which are inherently ideological; that is, they
situate language attitudes and practices socially and historically, indexing the
position of the speaker vis-a`-vis the social group and the larger society. As
such, these discourses expose the relations between language and identity, and
the ways in which language allegiance is tied to the distribution of power and
privilege in the larger society (Gee, 1996: 104). We conclude with a discussion
of the implications of this work for future research and Native American
language planning efforts.3
The Status of Native American Languages and Language
Proficiencies
The linguistic ecologies in which Native American students are growing up
are highly complex, variegated and not amenable to easy description or
assessment. Of 175 Indigenous languages still spoken in the USA, only 20 are
being naturally acquired as a first language by children (Krauss, 1998). The
historical causes of this language shift have been well studied, and we will not
repeat that work here.4 Suffice it to say that Native American languages, as
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 661
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Skutnabb-Kangas (2000: 222) characterises the process for minoritised
languages in general, have not fallen into disuse due to ‘natural’ causes;
‘they have been ‘‘helped’’ on their way.’ Colonial schooling designed to
‘remake Indian children into brown White citizens’ (Benally & Viri, 2005: 89)
has been a primary instrument for Native language eradication (Lomawaima
& McCarty, 2006).
In global terms, the contemporary situation of Native American
languages can be envisioned as a continuum, ranging from a few communities in which intergenerational language transmission persists, to those
in which the heritage language is spoken by the parental generation and
older, to those with only a handful of elderly Native-language speakers.
In all cases, language shift is under way. This continuum corresponds to
Fishman’s (1991) eight-point Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale
(GIDS). Krauss (1998) offers this classification for Native North American
languages:
. Class A: languages in which there are speakers of all generations;
. Class B: languages spoken by the parent generation and up;
. Class C: languages spoken by the grandparent generation and up; and
. Class D: languages spoken only by a few elderly persons.
The dynamics of language use and change ‘on the ground’, however, are not as
neat and tidy as a classificatory scheme might suggest. Multiple classifications
may apply across a single speech community. For example, Krauss (1998)
classifies Navajo and Tohono O’odham languages with relatively large
numbers of speakers in comparison with other Native American languages
as Class A, yet in some communities within the reservations in which they are
spoken, these languages are more accurately categorised as Class B or Class C.
Language vitality is influenced by numerous complicating factors: rural versus
urban lifestyles, locally available language education programmes and
materials, the number of Native-speaking teachers, and local and regional
opportunity structures vis-a`-vis the heritage language and culture, to name
only a few.
Within and across diverse local contexts, children’s language proficiencies,
their attitudes toward the heritage language and culture, and the relationship of language proficiencies and attitudes to school performance are not
well documented or understood. Adley-SantaMaria (1999: 17) notes that
the ‘(mis)education of Native American youth is one cause of the crisis
of language shift’. Bielenberg (2002) and Nicholas (2005) examine the familial,
communal and school-based dynamics impacting Hopi youth’s language
choices. Lee’s (1999) study of Navajo adolescents suggests that as they
aged, these youth became more aware of the endangered status of their
language; this may have led them to speak more Navajo with family members
as young adults (see also Lee & McLaughlin, 2001). Romero’s (2003) study
of child socialisation and language shift in Cochiti Pueblo documents
young people’s interest in learning Keres (the tribal language), although
most young parents were not fluent in Keres and were therefore raising their
children in English.
662 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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What we do know is that even as more Native American children come to
school speaking English as a primary language, they continue to be
stigmatised as ‘limited English proficient’ (LEP) and, as a group, to fare
poorly in school. More than 10% of all Native pupils enrolled in US public
schools are identified as LEP. In federal schools overseen by the Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA), nearly 60% of all Native pupils are so identified
(Tippeconnic & Faircloth, 2002: 1). The goal of the Native Language Shift
and Retention Study is to interrogate these linguistic and educational
processes what Hill (2002: 219) calls ‘the human specifics of endangeredlanguage communities’.
Research Contexts and Methodology
Because of the important role of schools in Indigenous communities,
schools have been points of entry and access to each of four tribal schoolcommunity sites. All of the sites are in Arizona, a state in which 25% of the
land base is Indian reservation land, and in which more than 5% of the total
population is Native (US Census Bureau, 2005). Arizona also is home to several
of the most populous tribes in the USA (US Department of Commerce, 1990).
The state is representative of a wide range of Native American communities,
schools and language situations.
Table 1 outlines the characteristics of participating project sites. Reflecting
the larger linguistic ecology presented in the previous section, the sites can be
envisioned across a continuum. At one end of the continuum is a small,
reservation-interior Navajo community with speakers of all ages, including
some elderly monolingual Navajo speakers. Navajo is a member of the huge
Athabaskan language family, which counts speakers from the sub-Arctic to the
southern Plains. The Navajo Nation has the second largest tribal population
(more than 250,000) and the largest reservation in the USA (25,000 square
miles, stretching over parts of three Southwestern states). According to the
2000 US Census, Navajo is spoken in every state in the union, with 178,014
speakers (Benally & Viri, 2005: 88). Despite these facts, the Navajo language is
at a crossroads, with fewer children learning it as a primary language each
generation (Benally & Viri, 2005). Our Navajo site includes a federally funded
community school serving approximately 600 students in pre-kindergarten
through Grade 12.
In central Arizona, we are working with two communities and their
community schools. Two languages are represented there: Akimel O’odham,
a Uto-Aztecan language, is also called Pima and is by far the largest speech
community on the reservation; Pii Paash is a Yuman language, also called
Maricopa. Both languages are considered ‘moribund’, having few or no child
speakers. Pii Paash is seriously endangered, with only a few elderly
speakers. The fourth project site is a Native American charter school5
serving primarily Tohono O’odham students (Tohono O’odham and Akimel
O’odham are mutually intelligible languages). Tohono O’odham is spoken
by members of the 20,000-member Tohono O’odham Nation in Southern
Arizona; there are still child speakers, although Tohono O’odham, too, is
increasingly endangered.
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 663
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Table 1 Characteristics of participating sites
Tribal group Tribal
population
Heritage/
community
language(s)
Language vitality
(Krauss, 1998)
Setting School type No.
schools
No.
students
Navajo 250,000 Navajo Class A 1 reservationinterior
community
Pre-K-12, federally
funded community
school
3 600
Akimel
O’odham/
Pii Paash
15,000 Akimel O’odham
(Pima); Pii Paash
(Maricopa)
Akimel O’odham:
Class B
C; Pii
Paash: Class D
2 reservation
communities,
both near large
metropolitan
area
Pre-K-8, federally
funded community
school
2 500
Tohono
O’odham
20,000 Tohono O’odham Class A
B Reservation and
urban
9 12 public charter
school
1 150
Summary 4 tribal
groups
4 Native languages Class A
D Reservation and
urban
Pre-K-12, federally
funded and public/
charter schools
6 1250
664 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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At each site, we have negotiated research protocols according to school,
tribal, university and federal norms. This has been a labour-intensive process,
but one that has resulted in a strong degree of local participation in and
ownership over the work. ‘If a researcher wants to know the ethics of doing
research in a … Native community’, Lomawaima (2000: 15) writes, ‘they must
first ask, then listen’. Thus, a key component of the project is the involvement
of Native co-researchers at each site teachers and paraprofessionals we call
Community Research Collaborators or CRCs. The CRCs have been instrumental to all phases of the research, facilitating entre´e and access through
tribal councils and school boards, helping to design and validate research
protocols, assisting in the conduct of in-depth interviews and the administration of project questionnaires and participating in university-based training on
language education planning, heritage language immersion and ethnographic
research methods. As suggested by the national Research Agenda, CRCs are
the critical change agents positioned to apply research findings to local
language education efforts once the study ends.
The overarching methodology for this project is ethnographic; prolonged
participant observation and in-depth interviews designed to elicit Native or
‘emic’ perspectives are primary research procedures. Data collection also
includes teacher, parent and student questionnaires, and locally maintained
school achievement data.
To date we have administered more than 500 questionnaires, conducted
hundreds of hours of observations of language use and teaching inside and
outside of schools, collected achievement data from three school sites, and
conducted 221 in-depth interviews, including 160 with adults and 61 with
youth in Grades 4 through 12. In structuring interviews, we have adapted
Seidman’s (1998) format, condensing his three-interview sequence into single
6090-min interviews that include:
(1) a focused life history, concentrating on language learning inside and
outside of school;
(2) details and observations of language use at home, in the school and in
the community; and
(3) normative assessments of the role of families, community members,
tribal government and the school in local language planning efforts.
To identify research participants, we have been guided by the recommendations of local CRCs, seeking a balance of Native and non-Native speakers,
males and females, and individuals of different ages and professional backgrounds. All interviews have been audiotaped and many have been conducted
with CRCs. For interviews conducted in the Native language, we have relied
on Native-speaking CRCs and the skills of bilingual, biliterate Native speakers
to translate and transcribe the data.
In the sections that follow, we examine two discourse pairings that
emerged from thematic analyses of interviews with Navajo youth, their
teachers and parents. One pairing juxtaposes language identity and endangerment; the second juxtaposes contradictory discourses of language pride
and shame. All data are from our Navajo site, which we call Beautiful
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 665
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Mountain (all names are pseudonyms). Beautiful Mountain is a reservationinterior community of about 1500, with 600 students served in three
school facilities (see Table 1). Wage labour at the school, in nearby mines,
construction and the railroad; and tribally or federally funded health and
social services constitute primary sources of income. Family incomes remain
well below national poverty levels, however, and the traditional subsistence
activities of ranching, small-scale farming, and sheep and goat herding
continue to have economic value.
Discourses of Language Identity and Endangerment: ‘The
Language Needs More Takers’
Some researchers have posited that the decline in Native American
languages is attributable to a general pattern of ‘denial’ about the endangered
state of these languages (Krauss, 1998), or to ‘collective ignorance and apathy’
(Benally & Viri, 2005: 98). In our work across project sites, however, we have
found not denial or apathy, but rather widespread concern about the fragile
state of the heritage language. Moreover, discourses of endangerment
intertwine with discourses of Indigenous identity. A young father of four
and teacher assistant at Beautiful Mountain School asserted, ‘We’re Navajo.
That’s our language. We need to keep on talking [Navajo].’ A Navajo school
administrator reflected, ‘The language, that’s what makes you a Navajo.’
Projecting into the future, another Navajo educator said:
Your child some day … she is going to look back and say, ‘Gosh, I am
Navajo and I don’t know anything. I can’t speak my language. I don’t
know who is related to me. I don’t know my community.’
A parent and school staff member said (in Navajo):
My parents handed down the values of the Navajo culture and tradition
to us and that’s what brought us forth to this day … so I value the
language and culture. I wish for us not to lose the language for our
children’s sake … We are made up with our language … Who will we
be when we have lost our language?
The themes of ‘language as key to identity’ and as ‘carrier of culture and
worldview’ are not new in discussions of language shift. As Hinton (2002: 152)
notes, these are among the most prevalent reasons given for why language
revitalisation is important (see also Fishman, 1991, 2001; Hornberger, 1996;
May, 1999). What has not been well studied is whether or how these themes
resonate with Native youth. We have found young people to be remarkably
articulate and even passionate in addressing these issues. A young man of 20,
for example, stated that knowing Navajo language and culture is the
foundation ‘to go on for better things in life’:
It gives you strength … to know where you’re coming from and to know
your self-identity and your culture … you will always come through
obstacles with your foundation being there to back you up.
666 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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Asked to speculate on the future of Navajo, he added, ‘We [Navajo people,
Dine´] have survived a lot of hard things trying to carry on the Navajo
language … I think it will go on.’
To explore youth discourses on language endangerment and identity in
greater depth, we introduce readers first to Samuel, a 17-year-old high school
senior when he was interviewed in 2004. Samuel learned to speak Navajo and
Apache (a closely related Athabaskan language) at an early age, but
considered Navajo his primary language and himself the ‘strongest’ speaker
of Navajo among his five siblings. He also claimed to know ‘a little French’ and
‘some Hopi’ (a Uto-Aztecan language spoken by Hopis whose reservation lies
within the borders of the Navajo Nation). By his own and his teachers’
accounts, Samuel was doing well in school. He aspired to become a medical
doctor and to return to the Navajo reservation to treat diabetes, a condition that
afflicted his grandmother and which has reached epidemic proportions in
Native American communities. Asked whether ‘knowing and keeping Navajo’
was important to him, Samuel replied, ‘Very important’.
Interviewer: Why?
Samuel: Because I get the best of both worlds … I want to become
a doctor. And to do that, I have to know how to
communicate with patients in Navajo and … in English.
And not just because I want to go into medicine, it’s
important [to know Navajo] because the language is dying
out not slowly, as it used to be, but it’s going very
vigorously now.
Asked whether he would feel ‘less Navajo’ if he could not speak the
language, Samuel averred that ‘no matter if you speak it or not, you’re
Navajo … But traditionally, if you’re not speaking Navajo, you [aren’t] a Navajo.’
Like other young people and many adults in our study, Samuel commented
on the fact that Navajo-speaking parents were not transmitting the language to
their children.
There’s a lot of [children] that aren’t even being taught. Their parents
can speak Navajo, but they don’t do it inside the home. They would
do it [outside the home], but they wouldn’t even teach their
children Navajo … And that, in a way, kind of makes me angry, because … Navajo is supposed to be spoken at all times in the house, … and these
parents, … they’re Navajo, and they should be speaking Navajo …
We will return to Samuel’s narrative in the following section, but we turn
now to an interview with Jonathan, a 16-year-old ninth grader at Beautiful
Mountain School when he was interviewed in 2004. A pensive young man,
Jonathan initially reported that he was ‘learning’ Navajo in school. However,
during an interview that lasted more than two hours, he revealed that his first
language was, in fact, Navajo. For years, he said, he had been ‘caught up in the
confusion of learning English, having to form those words in my head’. His
first elementary teacher, who was Navajo, had belittled him for his accented
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and ungrammatical English. This made Jonathan’s early goal in school ‘just
survival, how to cope in this colonial world we live in’. Despite these negative
school experiences, Jonathan viewed Navajo as integral to his identity and
ability ‘to bring about some change in the world, in my own [Navajo]
nation … because we need a strong [Native] community’. Asked if Navajo was
important to him, Jonathan said:
Yes, it helps me, having that as my first language … The Navajo, it helps
separate the side … of where all these [traditional Navajo] teachings
come in. That helps me not get too far in, not to lose the identity of who I
am, of where I come from … It’s mainly a search for who you are … It’s
your outlook, you know.
Jonathan linked knowledge of Navajo to Navajoness and stewardship of the
land:
We’re so much a part of the land, you know … It’s hard to see
[destruction of the land/loss of language]. It really hurts me … It’s a
spiritual anguish.
Asked what would happen ‘if there is no Navajo language anymore’, Jonathan
responded: ‘It’s like taking away the spirit; it’s like taking away a real big part
of who you are’.
Interviewer: Do you think Navajo will be spoken … 40 years from
now …?
Jonathan: I don’t really see people talking to their children in
Navajo … I have some hope, that’s all I can say,
because without hope … I wouldn’t have a reason … [I] hope that someday we can go about living
with the sacredness a little longer.
In Jonathan’s, Samuel’s and other young people’s discourses, sentimental
and even sacred attachments to the Navajo language are recurring themes.
These sentiments also appear in our interviews with adults at Beautiful
Mountain and other project sites: ‘I want them [children] to know you’re
… Indians’, an Akimel O’odham teacher stressed. ‘That’s your culture. That’s
who you are.’ A CRC maintained, ‘Our language … is the number-one source
of our soul, our pride, our being, our strength, and our identity.’ A Navajo
educator described the ability to speak Navajo as a ‘gift’, equating it with
‘getting back down to roots, … being able to say, ‘‘Yes, … I’m proud to say I’m
Navajo.’’’ ‘The language’, this educator said, ‘it needs more takers, somebody to
hold it up high.’
Contradictory Discourses of Language Pride and Shame:
‘You Forsake Who You Are to Accommodate the
Mainstream Life’
The previous section reveals the ethnolinguistic pride many young people
and adults attach to knowing and speaking the heritage language. ‘I’m proud
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that I can read and write Navajo’, one young woman in our study stated.
‘That’s how we were created.’ Many youth at Beautiful Mountain also viewed
their bilingualism as having an instrumental value as helping them succeed
in school and later life. This theme is apparent in Samuel’s interview; to
become a medical doctor, he said, ‘I have to know how to communicate with
patients in Navajo and how to do it in English.’ Asked if knowing Navajo
helped him in school, Samuel reflected:
Yeah, … just comparing the differences [between Navajo and
English], and the culture itself … when I go to the English class,
I can really tell the difference, and how Navajo is so descriptive, and
English isn’t.
A female senior reported that Navajo helped her in school ‘because you can
compare the two different languages’. Another student said that knowing
Navajo helped her because ‘when you try to pronounce something in English,
you just say it [first] in Navajo. And [then] I write it down [in English]’.6 This
same girl, who aspired to become a paediatrician, said that knowing Navajo
would be helpful in her career ‘cause kids [patients] might speak Navajo. And
their mom [might speak Navajo as well]’.
But not all youth at Beautiful Mountain shared these positive attachments to
Navajo language and culture. Jamie was 18 when he was interviewed in 2004.
Having grown up in a reservation border town, his primary language was
English. Jamie insisted that Navajo language and culture were ‘just the past’.
Distancing himself from his Navajoness, he stated that knowing Navajo is
important ‘because it’s their [Navajos’] culture’. Asked if he believed there had
been a decline in the use of Navajo among young people, Jamie replied: ‘Yes,
‘cuz kids don’t really care anymore’. At the same time, Jamie was trying to
learn Navajo in school.
These discourses reveal contradictory ideological currents that run throughout our interviews with Navajo youth and adults. A teacher aide reported that
a few of her students had insisted, ‘I’m not going to learn [Navajo]. Navajo’s
nothing. I hate it.’ During one phase of our fieldwork, school personnel were
assessing students’ Navajo language proficiencies. Describing her interactions
with students in one secondary classroom, the Navajo teacher charged with
administering the assessment reported:
When we were talking [to students] in Navajo they were … making
fun of us … and it really frustrated me, and I told them, this is very
sad, the way your attitude is towards your language and your
culture, … the way you are putting your language down…I told them
to really think about it because … every single one of them, they are
Navajo. ‘You are Navajo’ [I said to them], ‘take a look at yourself. If
you are laughing about your language or your culture, you are
laughing about your parents, you are laughing about your grandparents … you are Navajo and you should be proud of who you are
and your identity.’
After administering the assessment, the teacher found, to her surprise, that
students ‘knew the language but were just ashamed of it’.
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These discourses were further illuminated in interview segments in which
individuals were asked to estimate the proportion of Beautiful Mountain
students who were proficient Navajo speakers. With a few exceptions, adults
uniformly placed the number at 3050%. The teacher whose interview
excerpt appears above, for instance, was initially convinced that none of the
students she was testing could comprehend the most basic Navajo terms.
Another bilingual educator maintained that ‘No one speaks Navajo. They
only speak English now.’ Adolescents, on the other hand, expressed a very
different view:
Interviewer: In school, what percentage of the kids are fluent speakers
of Navajo?
Student 1: 80%.
Student 2: Probably 75%.
Student 3: 75%.
Student 4: 80%.
Student 5: Everybody knows Navajo out here.
Each of these responses was recorded in a separate, individual interview. The
responses were typical of Beautiful Mountain youth. As these data reveal,
there was wide divergence in how youth and adults responded to questions
about language proficiencies among the young, with youth consistently
providing much higher estimates. Recognising that self-assessments of
language proficiency are problematic, the divergent responses of youth and
adults nonetheless signify local perceptions of language vitality that have
important implications for language choices. A bilingual adult who believes
the child to whom she or he is speaking has little knowledge of or interest in
using Navajo is likely to address the child in English. For their part, youth may
possess greater Native language proficiency than they show, ‘hiding’ it out of
shame or embarrassment. The net effect is to curtail opportunities for rich,
natural adultchild interaction in the heritage language. As Samuel explained:
Well, … a lot of [youth] tend to hide [their Native language ability] … they put a fac¸ade on, and they … try to make teachers believe that
they speak primarily [English] and weren’t exposed to Navajo.
Asked how he thought students at his school felt about speaking Navajo,
Samuel stated:
They probably think it’s important, but … they’re judged by it by other
people that speak English more clear than they do and they just kind of
feel dirty about the whole thing, and that’s why they put on the
fake … and try to make it sound like they speak more English than they
do Navajo …
For some of his peers, Samuel claimed, speaking Navajo stigmatises one as
‘uneducated, and they haven’t experienced anything in the world’.
This was confirmed in interviews with adults. ‘Many of the kids around
here do speak Navajo’, a Navajo school administrator stated:
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A lot of them fake not wanting to speak Navajo. I knew. They’re
ashamed. I caught a few students who claim they only speak English
[but] there are hundreds who are fluent Navajo speakers.
A bilingual teacher assistant reported that her students ‘pretend that their
parents are all educated’, implying that parents speak only English at home.
‘And some of the parents don’t even speak English!’ the teacher assistant
exclaimed. In parentteacher conferences, she had been surprised to hear
parents report that their child who claimed not to know Navajo had been
raised in a Navajo-language environment. A mother whose primary language
was Navajo reported that her 22-year-old son refused to speak Navajo:
He’ll say, ‘Why do I have to speak Navajo? … It’s a new world. We’re
more into technology, we’re into the bilaga´ana [White, English-speaking]
world. I don’t have to speak my language … We want to go forward, not
backward.’
Interestingly, this mother’s 17-year-old daughter told her, ‘I want to go
forward. I want to keep my language too.’
How can we understand these contradictory discourses? Jonathan provided
a remarkably sophisticated postcolonial analysis, which he referred to as the
‘Long Walk Syndrome’. In 1864, 7000 Navajo people their sheep herds and
farms destroyed in a federal ‘scorched earth’ campaign were marched at
bayonet point by the US cavalry 300 miles across wintry plains to a
concentration camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico (called Hwe´eldi in Navajo).
Hundreds of people perished along the way, many at the hands of soldiers;
thousands more died as a result of their incarceration. Four years later,
acknowledging Fort Sumner as a ‘failed experiment’, the federal government
released the 2000 survivors, dispossessing them of all but a fraction of their
original homelands. Recalling these events, Jonathan said:
Like I said, this Long Walk syndrome … we’re afraid to be punished,
we’re afraid that someone will whip us in the back … you forsake who
you are, you give up having to learn Navajo … [You] give all that up, in
order to accommodate the mainstream life … That’s been colonised in
the mind.
‘Many of these kids know how to speak Navajo’, Jonathan asserted, ‘but many
times they might be ashamed, or got that kind of self-hate’
It’s been pumped into them. It’s not something natural. It’s being told
Navajo is stupid … to speak Indian is the way of the devil, that kind of
thing…and many times, the older people will encourage English so
[their children] can make it in the White man’s world…Like I said, for
me, it [early school experiences] kind of confused me. Where was I in the
world?
The psychosocial and linguistic consequences of genocide, colonisation and
language repression have been documented for speech communities around
the world. Writing of ‘language shame’ among Garifuna children in Belize,
Bonner (2001: 86) notes that the cause is not language per se, but rather the
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marginalisation of Garifuna and ‘the association of Garifuna ethnic identity
with poverty and low social status’. Reese and Goldenberg (2006: 25) describe
similar processes for Spanish speakers in southern California. In a collection of
life histories reflecting the multiple ‘face[t]s’ of heritage language loss,
Kouritzin (1999) demonstrates the further complicity of racism and linguicism.
‘I grew up feeling ashamed to be Chinese, and of course, to speak Cantonese’,
a young woman of Canadian-born Cantonese parents recalled, remembering
the taunts by her classmates of ‘Chinky, Chinky Chinamen’ (Kouritzin, 1999:
43). ‘You shame people away from their language’, a Cree artist and writer told
Kouritzin (1999: 6667):
… you deal with it by speaking English, and that way you don’t have to
face the hurt of the loss … you hide behind the language of the
dominant society for a while … thinking you’re cool because you speak
English, you’re cool because you don’t speak [the Native language]
anymore. It’s better because now you’re white, right?
Conclusions and Implications for Language Revitalisation
and Maintenance
Youth and adult discourses from Beautiful Mountain implicate a complex
array of ideological forces that underpin heritage-language shift and retention
among the young. On the one hand, many youth express pride in their
heritage language, fusing it solidly to their senses of self. For these young
people, the language is a tool for negotiating multiple languages and cultural
worlds, and a foundation to ‘to go on for better things in life’. Further, as
Samuel’s discourse reveals, youth recognise that ‘the language is … [declining]
very vigorously now’. On the other hand, some youth have internalised the
message conveyed and legitimated by racialised societal discourses and
marginalising practices that speaking Navajo is an emblem of shame that
must be renounced. For these youth, (marginalised) Navajo is linked with
‘backwardness’ and (privileged) English is associated with modernity and
opportunity; youth feel they must make an eitheror choice between language
affiliations.
The sociolinguistic dynamics at Beautiful Mountain are in many ways
unique among our project sites. Beautiful Mountain is a fairly conservative,
reservation-interior community, and we suspect that the situation there also
differs in some important respects from that of reservation bordertown
communities. These differences notwithstanding, the ideological cross-currents reflected in youth discourses at Beautiful Mountain have been noted for
other endangered-language communities, and language planning challenges
faced there are widely shared.
These challenges are compounded by the global spread of English and the
growing standards movement in US schools. According to youth and adults in
our study, these pressures are forcing schools to abandon heritage-language
instruction. ‘The school can spend some time teaching Navajo’, a Beautiful
Mountain teacher stated, ‘but we can’t be bogged down, … we have so many
requirements to meet.’ Another teacher remarked, ‘We don’t have time to teach
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Navajo. We’ve been told to teach to the standards.’ Youth are keenly aware of
these pressures. ‘English’, Jonathan asserted, ‘that’s always taking over … It’s
just hard to have … a Native thing going. Because we’re run by the state, and
we’re told to do these tests and everything.’
Despite the challenges, it seems clear from this preliminary analysis that
many Native youth are deeply concerned about the future of their heritage
language. It also seems evident that in the Navajo case, youth may possess
greater heritage-language proficiency than they demonstrate or than adults
credit. Youth interests in retaining their heritage language and their (often
intentionally hidden) heritage-language proficiencies constitute critical resources for Indigenous language revitalisation and maintenance efforts.
All participants in our study stated that those efforts must begin with
parents and families in the home. ‘Tell the parents to let the kids speak Navajo
when they’re born’, the 13-year-old girl who aspired to become a peadiatrician
told us. A bilingual teacher provided this insightful commentary:
The most important thing is that it is up to us. As parents we have an
opinion about it and the responsibility belongs to us, we, the mothers
and fathers. And our leaders have ownership to part of it too. How might
they be thinking about all of this for us? … We are called Indigenous and
we are looked at as such … I want it to remain that way in the
future … You decide not to let them [outsiders] take away your
language to let it die.
We concur with these sentiments, but recognise that parents and families need
support if their efforts are to have the desired effects. Writing about her native
Hopi language, Sheilah Nicholas (2005: 36) describes this challenge as
reinvigorating ‘the community ethic of ‘‘putting our hearts together for a
common purpose’’’. This involves recognition ‘that the major upheaval of the
Hopi way of life has left them with little alternative but to … reimagine a way
of life that accommodates changes from within the community’ (Nicholas,
2005: 36). Hualapai educator Lucille Watahomigie (1995: 191) speaks of the
need for ‘reverse brainwashing’: educating community members ‘on the
importance and priority of the values and knowledge embodied in our
culture’. Romero’s (2003) and Sims’s (2001) research on Keres, the heritage
language of the New Mexico Pueblos of Cochiti and Acoma, illustrates the
ways in which community language surveys can open new possibilities for
dialogue and change:
On the one hand, findings [from the surveys] pointed to the possibility of
the loss of the Keres language within the next several decades or
sooner…On the other hand, the findings revealed that there remained a
considerable number of fluent speakers … and, if revitalization efforts
were initiated promptly and carefully, language shift could be stemmed
and even reversed. (Romero & McCarty, 2006: 11)
Much more ‘on the ground’ research is needed on these processes and their
impacts. Further research also is needed on the relationship of language
revitalisation to American Indian student achievement, a focus of the present
study. There are many promising precedents that already have shown positive
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correlations between heritage-language learning and student achievement,
among them Native-language immersion programmes in Hawai’i (Warner,
2001; Wilson & Kamana¯, 2001) and at Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation
(Arviso & Holm, 2001; Holm & Holm, 1995; see also Burnaby & Reyhner, 2002;
Huss et al., 2003; May, 1999; May & Aikman, 2003; McCarty & Zepeda, 1998).
We conclude by returning to Jonathan’s fiercely hopeful words, quoted in
the epigraph that begins this paper. Most youth in our study indicated that
they value the heritage language, view it as integral to their senses of self, want
and expect adults to teach it to them, and employ it as a strategic tool to
facilitate their English language learning in school. Native youth discourses
problematise a monolingual English status quo, calling upon adults to respond
by creating opportunities to learn in and through the heritage language. As
expressions of youth concerns about the future of their people, their language
and their culture, youth discourses constitute potent testimony capable of
informing local, tribal, state and national language education planning and
policy.
Language policies and practices are human-built and thus malleable to
change. Youth have much to teach us about the strategies we might employ in
creating policies and practices that support heritage-language retention. Our
role, then, is to listen and to act.
Acknowledgements
We wish to acknowledge support from the US Department of Education,
Institute of Education Sciences, for providing the funding for the Native
Language Shift and Retention Study. We also thank the CRCs, research
assistants, and the Alice Wiley Snell Endowment for Education Policy Studies
for support of the senior author’s work on the project. All data, statements,
opinions, and conclusions or implications in this paper solely reflect the view
of the authors and research participants, and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the funding agency, tribes or their tribal councils, the Arizona Board
of Regents or Arizona State University, under whose auspices the project
operates. This information is presented in the pursuit of academic research
and is published in this volume solely for educational and research purposes.
Pursuant to our agreement with the Arizona State University Internal Review
Board, this paper may not be reproduced in any medium, transmitted or
distributed, in whole or in part, without the authors’ prior written consent.
Correspondence
Any correspondence should be directed to Teresa L. McCarty, Division of
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State University, PO Box
872411, Tempe, 43 85287-2411, USA ([email protected]).
Notes
1. This excludes the 1990/1992 Native American Languages Act (NALA), which
supports the teaching of Native American languages as second languages. Funding
for NALA, however, is miniscule in comparison to that available under other
federal legislation that has historically supported some form of bilingual education
for students whose first language is not English (i.e. the Bilingual Education Act
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[BEA] of 1968). With the passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the BEA
was recast as the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and
Academic Achievement Act. Although this legislation includes a provision for
instructional programmes for Native American children studying Indigenous
languages, such programmes are clearly not intended to promote, revitalise or
maintain those languages. The legislation specifies that the outcomes of these
programmes ‘shall be increased English proficiency’ (Sec. 3216).
2. The metaphor of linguistic ecology comes from Haugen (1972), who traces it to
Voegelin and Voegelin (1964). Our concern is with a specific aspect of this
metaphor: language endangerment. As Hornberger (2003: 321) notes, the focus on
language endangerment is not only about studying and describing language loss,
but about counteracting it (see also Mu¨ hlhau¨ sler, 1996).
3. In Gee’s (1996) framework, (lower-case) discourses constitute and are constituted
by (upper-case) Discourses ‘ways of being in the world, … a sort of ‘‘identity
kit’’’ or way of using language that identifies one as a member of a social group
(Gee, 1996: 143). In the present analysis, we examine the ways in which Native
youth discourses on heritage languages reflect and constitute Discourses. This is
not a ‘discourse analysis’ in the more technical and linguistic sense employed by
Gee and others (i.e. analysis of prosody, cohesion, contextualisation, organisation).
Rather, we are concerned with youth discourses as manifestations of ideologies
about language that in turn have an impact on language practices and choices.
4. For more on this, see Benally and Viri (2005), Lomawaima and McCarty (2006:
ch. 7), McCarty (2002a, 2002b: ch. 13) and Watahomigie and McCarty (1996).
5. Charter schools are state-funded schools linked through formal agreements to
authorising entities such as public school systems, but chartered by a distinctive
mission. In the case of this charter school site, the mission is to serve as an
academically rigorous, bicultural, community-based high school for Native youth.
6. What these youth are describing is metalinguistic awareness, an ability developed
in the context of bi/multilingualism that has been shown to enhance cognitive
flexibility.
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Reese, L. and Goldenberg, C. (2006) Community contexts for literacy development of
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Romero, M.E. (2003) Perpetuating the Cochiti way of life: A study of child socialization
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Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism

This article was downloaded by: [University of California, San Diego]
On: 29 March 2013, At: 14:18
Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office:
Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
International Journal of Bilingual Education
and Bilingualism
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription
information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rbeb20
Native American Youth Discourses on
Language Shift and Retention: Ideological
Cross- currents and Their Implications for
Language Planning
Teresa L. McCarty a
, Mary Eunice Romero-Little b
& Ofelia Zepeda c
a
Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State
University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
b
Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe,
AZ, USA
c
Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Version of record first published: 22 Dec 2008.
To cite this article: Teresa L. McCarty , Mary Eunice Romero-Little & Ofelia Zepeda (2006): Native American
Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention: Ideological Cross- currents and Their Implications for
Language Planning, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9:5, 659-677
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2167/beb386.0
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whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with or arising out of
the use of this material.
Native American Youth Discourses on
Language Shift and Retention:
Ideological Cross-currents and Their
Implications for Language Planning
Teresa L. McCarty
Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State
University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Mary Eunice Romero-Little
Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe,
AZ, USA
Ofelia Zepeda
Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
This paper examines preliminary findings from an ongoing federally funded study
of Native language shift and retention in the US Southwest, focusing on in-depth
ethnographic interviews with Navajo youth. We begin with an overview of Native
American linguistic ecologies, noting the dynamic, variegated and complex nature of
language proficiencies and practices across a continuum of sociocultural settings. We
then examine two pairs of youth discourses that illuminate socialpsychological and
macro-structural influences on language practices. These discourses juxtapose
language identity with language endangerment, and language pride with language
shame. As such, they expose the ways in which language allegiance is tied to the
distribution of power and privilege in the larger society. Youth discourses, we argue,
represent a powerful call to action for communities and schools serving Native
American students. We conclude with the implications for future research and for
language education planning in Indigenous and other endangered-language communities.
doi: 10.2167/beb386.0
Keywords: Native American language eduation, indigenous languages,
language revitalisation, language planning, language ideologies, Native
American youth
When you first came to be as a child, the things that you were taught
were very strong … [But] the next generation, they dont seem to want it.
That is why our language, our prayers, the words we used to speak
our words are not wanted anymore. (Navajo grandmother, interview,
January 1996)
Elders say were lost youth. No. [We just want] adults to take the
time … to try to encourage us … Theres always hope. (Jonathan, 16-
year-old Navajo high school student, interview, May 2004)
1367-0050/06/05 659-19 $20.00/0 2006 T.L. McCarty et al.
The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism Vol. 9, No. 5, 2006
659
Downloaded by [University of California, San Diego] at 14:18 29 March 2013
Introduction
These reflections on language by a Navajo elder and youth poignantly
illustrate the challenges faced by Native American families and communities
in their efforts to maintain their heritage languages and cultures. In Navajo, the
first language of both speakers cited above, the terms for language and
word are identical: saad. In the first excerpt, a Navajo elder laments the loss of
our language, our words we used to speak among the young. In the second
excerpt, a Navajo youth resists that loss, insisting theres always hope.
Understanding Native youth and adult perspectives on heritage-language
shift and retention is central to an ongoing federally funded study being
carried out in the US Southwest. The Native Language Shift and Retention
Study responds to a 1998 executive order by then-President William J. Clinton,
calling for research to evaluate the role of native language and culture in the
development of educational strategies for Native American students (Executive Order 13096, 1998, Section 2, [f][3]). As part of the executive order, a
working group composed of federal and non-governmental organisations
sponsored a series of regional forums and a national conference at which
recommendations for high-priority research topics were proposed. Probably
no subject generates more interest and discussion than the idea of structuring
[American Indian and Alaska Native] education around the concepts and
language that lie at the core of tribal or village culture, researchers closely
involved with this process observed (Strang et al., 2003: 4). Calling on
researchers to work actively with the tribes and villages to conduct research
that is both nationally generalisable and locally responsive, the national
Research Agenda growing out of these forums seeks to address what is and is
not successful as part of a larger school reform and improvement effort
(Strang et al., 2003: 2).
Well informed and well implemented language education planning,
policies and programmes lie at the heart of such education reforms. Most
federal and state language education policies, however, are premised on the
assumption that language minority children enter school speaking a primary
language other than English.1 Putting aside for the moment the compensatory
and assimilationist aims of these policies, we must question the validity of the
premise itself for Native American learners. Increasingly, Native American
children enter school with English as their primary language. At the same
time, tribal/community languages continue to be an important part of
Indigenous linguistic ecologies, which typically include one or more tribal
languages, schooled or pedagogised English, and Nativised varieties of
English.2 Effective language education policies and programmes must be
responsive to these unique sociolinguistic conditions and the language
practices they reflect and produce.
The Native Language Shift and Retention Study is tasked with examining
these conditions and practices on the ground. We are particularly concerned
with eliciting local understandings of and experiences with language shift
across a range of tribal-community contexts. What language attitudes and
ideologies prevail in these language shift settings? How do Native youth
identify with their heritage language and culture? What are their language
660 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
Downloaded by [University of California, San Diego] at 14:18 29 March 2013
proficiencies? What is the relationship among childrens language proficiencies, language attitudes/ideologies and school achievement? Four overarching
research questions guide this study:
(1) What role does the Native/heritage language play in the personal,
familial, community and school lives of American Indian youth?
(2) How do language loss and revitalisation factor into how well youth
perform in school, as measured by district-administered local and
national assessments?
(3) How might the findings from this study inform tribal language planning
and education initiatives?
(4) What are the lessons for state and national education policies and
minority language rights?
This is an action-oriented study with a strong social justice component. Our
assumption is that language is not only a resource to its speakers and
humankind (Ruiz, 1984), but that heritage language acquisition and development are fundamental human rights (Magga & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2003;
Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000, in press). Linguistic rights are part of a larger
democratic project in support of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
Hence, supporting tribes and Native communities in promoting their heritage
languages is a further goal of this research.
We begin with a brief overview of Native American linguistic ecologies,
noting the ramifications for language proficiencies. This is followed by a
description of the research methodology and contexts. We then examine a
select corpus of data from one school-community site, focusing on in-depth
ethnographic interviews with Navajo youth. These data are selected for
analysis because they embody both socialpsychological and macro-structural
influences on language practices. We characterise these as discourses,
stretches of language that hang together in ways that are meaningful to
their users (Gee, 1996: 104), and which are inherently ideological; that is, they
situate language attitudes and practices socially and historically, indexing the
position of the speaker vis-a`-vis the social group and the larger society. As
such, these discourses expose the relations between language and identity, and
the ways in which language allegiance is tied to the distribution of power and
privilege in the larger society (Gee, 1996: 104). We conclude with a discussion
of the implications of this work for future research and Native American
language planning efforts.3
The Status of Native American Languages and Language
Proficiencies
The linguistic ecologies in which Native American students are growing up
are highly complex, variegated and not amenable to easy description or
assessment. Of 175 Indigenous languages still spoken in the USA, only 20 are
being naturally acquired as a first language by children (Krauss, 1998). The
historical causes of this language shift have been well studied, and we will not
repeat that work here.4 Suffice it to say that Native American languages, as
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 661
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Skutnabb-Kangas (2000: 222) characterises the process for minoritised
languages in general, have not fallen into disuse due to natural causes;
they have been helped on their way. Colonial schooling designed to
remake Indian children into brown White citizens (Benally & Viri, 2005: 89)
has been a primary instrument for Native language eradication (Lomawaima
& McCarty, 2006).
In global terms, the contemporary situation of Native American
languages can be envisioned as a continuum, ranging from a few communities in which intergenerational language transmission persists, to those
in which the heritage language is spoken by the parental generation and
older, to those with only a handful of elderly Native-language speakers.
In all cases, language shift is under way. This continuum corresponds to
Fishmans (1991) eight-point Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale
(GIDS). Krauss (1998) offers this classification for Native North American
languages:
. Class A: languages in which there are speakers of all generations;
. Class B: languages spoken by the parent generation and up;
. Class C: languages spoken by the grandparent generation and up; and
. Class D: languages spoken only by a few elderly persons.
The dynamics of language use and change on the ground, however, are not as
neat and tidy as a classificatory scheme might suggest. Multiple classifications
may apply across a single speech community. For example, Krauss (1998)
classifies Navajo and Tohono Oodham languages with relatively large
numbers of speakers in comparison with other Native American languages
as Class A, yet in some communities within the reservations in which they are
spoken, these languages are more accurately categorised as Class B or Class C.
Language vitality is influenced by numerous complicating factors: rural versus
urban lifestyles, locally available language education programmes and
materials, the number of Native-speaking teachers, and local and regional
opportunity structures vis-a`-vis the heritage language and culture, to name
only a few.
Within and across diverse local contexts, childrens language proficiencies,
their attitudes toward the heritage language and culture, and the relationship of language proficiencies and attitudes to school performance are not
well documented or understood. Adley-SantaMaria (1999: 17) notes that
the (mis)education of Native American youth is one cause of the crisis
of language shift. Bielenberg (2002) and Nicholas (2005) examine the familial,
communal and school-based dynamics impacting Hopi youths language
choices. Lees (1999) study of Navajo adolescents suggests that as they
aged, these youth became more aware of the endangered status of their
language; this may have led them to speak more Navajo with family members
as young adults (see also Lee & McLaughlin, 2001). Romeros (2003) study
of child socialisation and language shift in Cochiti Pueblo documents
young peoples interest in learning Keres (the tribal language), although
most young parents were not fluent in Keres and were therefore raising their
children in English.
662 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
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What we do know is that even as more Native American children come to
school speaking English as a primary language, they continue to be
stigmatised as limited English proficient (LEP) and, as a group, to fare
poorly in school. More than 10% of all Native pupils enrolled in US public
schools are identified as LEP. In federal schools overseen by the Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA), nearly 60% of all Native pupils are so identified
(Tippeconnic & Faircloth, 2002: 1). The goal of the Native Language Shift
and Retention Study is to interrogate these linguistic and educational
processes what Hill (2002: 219) calls the human specifics of endangeredlanguage communities.
Research Contexts and Methodology
Because of the important role of schools in Indigenous communities,
schools have been points of entry and access to each of four tribal schoolcommunity sites. All of the sites are in Arizona, a state in which 25% of the
land base is Indian reservation land, and in which more than 5% of the total
population is Native (US Census Bureau, 2005). Arizona also is home to several
of the most populous tribes in the USA (US Department of Commerce, 1990).
The state is representative of a wide range of Native American communities,
schools and language situations.
Table 1 outlines the characteristics of participating project sites. Reflecting
the larger linguistic ecology presented in the previous section, the sites can be
envisioned across a continuum. At one end of the continuum is a small,
reservation-interior Navajo community with speakers of all ages, including
some elderly monolingual Navajo speakers. Navajo is a member of the huge
Athabaskan language family, which counts speakers from the sub-Arctic to the
southern Plains. The Navajo Nation has the second largest tribal population
(more than 250,000) and the largest reservation in the USA (25,000 square
miles, stretching over parts of three Southwestern states). According to the
2000 US Census, Navajo is spoken in every state in the union, with 178,014
speakers (Benally & Viri, 2005: 88). Despite these facts, the Navajo language is
at a crossroads, with fewer children learning it as a primary language each
generation (Benally & Viri, 2005). Our Navajo site includes a federally funded
community school serving approximately 600 students in pre-kindergarten
through Grade 12.
In central Arizona, we are working with two communities and their
community schools. Two languages are represented there: Akimel Oodham,
a Uto-Aztecan language, is also called Pima and is by far the largest speech
community on the reservation; Pii Paash is a Yuman language, also called
Maricopa. Both languages are considered moribund, having few or no child
speakers. Pii Paash is seriously endangered, with only a few elderly
speakers. The fourth project site is a Native American charter school5
serving primarily Tohono Oodham students (Tohono Oodham and Akimel
Oodham are mutually intelligible languages). Tohono Oodham is spoken
by members of the 20,000-member Tohono Oodham Nation in Southern
Arizona; there are still child speakers, although Tohono Oodham, too, is
increasingly endangered.
Native Youth Discourses on Language Shift and Retention 663
Downloaded by [University of California, San Diego] at 14:18 29 March 2013
Table 1 Characteristics of participating sites
Tribal group Tribal
population
Heritage/
community
language(s)
Language vitality
(Krauss, 1998)
Setting School type No.
schools
No.
students
Navajo 250,000 Navajo Class A 1 reservationinterior
community
Pre-K-12, federally
funded community
school
3 600
Akimel
Oodham/
Pii Paash
15,000 Akimel Oodham
(Pima); Pii Paash
(Maricopa)
Akimel Oodham:
Class B
C; Pii
Paash: Class D
2 reservation
communities,
both near large
metropolitan
area
Pre-K-8, federally
funded community
school
2 500
Tohono
Oodham
20,000 Tohono Oodham Class A
B Reservation and
urban
9 12 public charter
school
1 150
Summary 4 tribal
groups
4 Native languages Class A
D Reservation and
urban
Pre-K-12, federally
funded and public/
charter schools
6 1250
664 The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
Downloaded by [University of California, San Diego] at 14:18 29 March 2013
At each site, we have negotiated research protocols according to school,
tribal, university and federal norms. This has been a labour-intensive process,
but one that has resulted in a strong degree of local participation in and
ownership over the work. If a researcher wants to know the ethics of doing
research in a … Native community, Lomawaima (2000: 15) writes, they must
first ask, then listen. Thus, a key component of the project is the involvement
of Native co-researchers at each site teachers and paraprofessionals we call
Community Research Collaborators or CRCs. The CRCs have been instrumental to all phases of the research, facilitating entree and access through
tribal councils and school boards, helping to design and validate research
protocols, assisting in the conduct of in-depth interviews and the administration of project questionnaires and participating in university-based training on
language education planning, heritage language immersion and ethnographic
research methods. As suggested by the national Research Agenda, CRCs are
the critical change agents positioned to apply research findings to local
language education efforts once the study ends.
The overarching methodology for this project is ethnographic; prolonged
participant observation and in-depth interviews designed to elicit Native or
emic perspectives are primary research procedures. Data collection also
includes teacher, parent and student questionnaires, and locally maintained
school achievement data.
To date we have administered more than 500 questionnaires, conducted
hundreds of hours of observations of language use and teaching inside and
outside of schools, collected achievement data from three school sites, and
conducted 221 in-depth interviews, including 160 with adults and 61 with
youth in Grades 4 through 12. In structuring interviews, we have adapted
Seidmans (1998) format, condensing his three-interview sequence into single
6090-min interviews that include:
(1) a focused life history, concentrating on language learning inside and
outside of school;
(2) details and observations of language use at home, in the school and in
the community; and
(3) normative assessments of the role of families, community members,
tribal government and the school in local language planning efforts.
To identify research participants, we have been guided by the recommendations of local CRCs, seeking a balance of Native and non-Native speakers,
males and females, and individuals of different ages and professional backgrounds. All interviews have been audiotaped and many have been conducted
with CRCs. For interviews conducted in the Native language, we have relied
on Native-speaking CRCs and the skills of bilingual, biliterate Native speakers
to translate and transcribe the data.
In the sections that follow, we examine two discourse pairings that
emerged from thematic analyses of interviews with Navajo youth, their
teachers and parents. One pairing juxtaposes language identity and endangerment; the second juxtaposes contradictory discourses of language pride
and shame. All data are from our Navajo site, which we call Beautiful
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Mountain (all names are pseudonyms). Beautiful Mountain is a reservationinterior community of about 1500, with 600 students served in three
school facilities (see Table 1). Wage labour at the school, in nearby mines,
construction and the railroad; and tribally or federally funded health and
social services constitute primary sources of income. Family incomes remain
well below national poverty levels, however, and the traditional subsistence
activities of ranching, small-scale farming, and sheep and goat herding
continue to have economic value.
Discourses of Language Identity and Endangerment: The
Language Needs More Takers
Some researchers have posited that the decline in Native American
languages is attributable to a general pattern of denial about the endangered
state of these languages (Krauss, 1998), or to collective ignorance and apathy
(Benally & Viri, 2005: 98). In our work across project sites, however, we have
found not denial or apathy, but rather widespread concern about the fragile
state of the heritage language. Moreover, discourses of endangerment
intertwine with discourses of Indigenous identity. A young father of four
and teacher assistant at Beautiful Mountain School asserted, Were Navajo.
Thats our language. We need to keep on talking [Navajo]. A Navajo school
administrator reflected, The language, thats what makes you a Navajo.
Projecting into the future, another Navajo educator said:
Your child some day … she is going to look back and say, Gosh, I am
Navajo and I dont know anything. I cant speak my language. I dont
know who is related to me. I dont know my community.
A parent and school staff member said (in Navajo):
My parents handed down the values of the Navajo culture and tradition
to us and thats what brought us forth to this day … so I value the
language and culture. I wish for us not to lose the language for our
childrens sake … We are made up with our language … Who will we
be when we have lost our language?
The themes of language as key to identity and as carrier of culture and
worldview are not new in discussions of language shift. As Hinton (2002: 152)
notes, these are among the most prevalent reasons given for why language
revitalisation is important (see also Fishman, 1991, 2001; Hornberger, 1996;
May, 1999). What has not been well studied is whether or how these themes
resonate with Native youth. We have found young people to be remarkably
articulate and even passionate in addressing these issues. A young man of 20,
for example, stated that knowing Navajo language and culture is the
foundation to go on for better things in life:
It gives you strength … to know where youre coming from and to know
your self-identity and your culture … you will always come through
obstacles with your foundation being there to back you up.
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Asked to speculate on the future of Navajo, he added, We [Navajo people,
Dine] have survived a lot of hard things trying to carry on the Navajo
language … I think it will go on.
To explore youth discourses on language endangerment and identity in
greater depth, we introduce readers first to Samuel, a 17-year-old high school
senior when he was interviewed in 2004. Samuel learned to speak Navajo and
Apache (a closely related Athabaskan language) at an early age, but
considered Navajo his primary language and himself the strongest speaker
of Navajo among his five siblings. He also claimed to know a little French and
some Hopi (a Uto-Aztecan language spoken by Hopis whose reservation lies
within the borders of the Navajo Nation). By his own and his teachers
accounts, Samuel was doing well in school. He aspired to become a medical
doctor and to return to the Navajo reservation to treat diabetes, a condition that
afflicted his grandmother and which has reached epidemic proportions in
Native American communities. Asked whether knowing and keeping Navajo
was important to him, Samuel replied, Very important.
Interviewer: Why?
Samuel: Because I get the best of both worlds … I want to become
a doctor. And to do that, I have to know how to
communicate with patients in Navajo and … in English.
And not just because I want to go into medicine, its
important [to know Navajo] because the language is dying
out not slowly, as it used to be, but its going very
vigorously now.
Asked whether he would feel less Navajo if he could not speak the
language, Samuel averred that no matter if you speak it or not, youre
Navajo … But traditionally, if youre not speaking Navajo, you [arent] a Navajo.
Like other young people and many adults in our study, Samuel commented
on the fact that Navajo-speaking parents were not transmitting the language to
their children.
Theres a lot of [children] that arent even being taught. Their parents
can speak Navajo, but they dont do it inside the home. They would
do it [outside the home], but they wouldnt even teach their
children Navajo … And that, in a way, kind of makes me angry, because … Navajo is supposed to be spoken at all times in the house, … and these
parents, … theyre Navajo, and they should be speaking Navajo …
We will return to Samuels narrative in the following section, but we turn
now to an interview with Jonathan, a at Beautiful
Mountain School when he was interviewed in 2004. A pensive young man,
Jonathan initially reported that he was learning Navajo in school. However,
during an interview that lasted more than two hours, he revealed that his first
language was, in fact, Navajo. For years, he said, he had been caught up in the
confusion of learning English, having to form those words in my head. His
first elementary teacher, who was Navajo, had belittled him for his accented
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and ungrammatical English. This made Jonathans early goal in school just
survival, how to cope in this colonial world we live in. Despite these negative
school experiences, Jonathan viewed Navajo as integral to his identity and
ability to bring about some change in the world, in my own [Navajo]
nation … because we need a strong [Native] community. Asked if Navajo was
important to him, Jonathan said:
Yes, it helps me, having that as my first language … The Navajo, it helps
separate the side … of where all these [traditional Navajo] teachings
come in. That helps me not get too far in, not to lose the identity of who I
am, of where I come from … Its mainly a search for who you are … Its
your outlook, you know.
Jonathan linked knowledge of Navajo to Navajoness and stewardship of the
land:
Were so much a part of the land, you know … Its hard to see
[destruction of the land/loss of language]. It really hurts me … Its a
spiritual anguish.
Asked what would happen if there is no Navajo language anymore, Jonathan
responded: Its like taking away the spirit; its like taking away a real big part
of who you are.
Interviewer: Do you think Navajo will be spoken … 40 years from
now …?
Jonathan: I dont really see people talking to their children in
Navajo … I have some hope, thats all I can say,
because without hope … I wouldnt have a reason … [I] hope that someday we can go about living
with the sacredness a little longer.
In Jonathans, Samuels and other young peoples discourses, sentimental
and even sacred attachments to the Navajo language are recurring themes.
These sentiments also appear in our interviews with adults at Beautiful
Mountain and other project sites: I want them [children] to know youre
… Indians, an Akimel Oodham teacher stressed. Thats your culture. Thats
who you are. A CRC maintained, Our language … is the number-one source
of our soul, our pride, our being, our strength, and our identity. A Navajo
educator described the ability to speak Navajo as a gift, equating it with
getting back down to roots, … being able to say, Yes, … Im proud to say Im
Navajo. The language, this educator said, it needs more takers, somebody to
hold it up high.
Contradictory Discourses of Language Pride and Shame:
You Forsake Who You Are to Accommodate the
Mainstream Life
The previous section reveals the ethnolinguistic pride many young people
and adults attach to knowing and speaking the heritage language. Im proud
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that I can read and write Navajo, one young woman in our study stated.
Thats how we were created. Many youth at Beautiful Mountain also viewed
their bilingualism as having an instrumental value as helping them succeed
in school and later life. This theme is apparent in Samuels interview; to
become a medical doctor, he said, I have to know how to communicate with
patients in Navajo and how to do it in English. Asked if knowing Navajo
helped him in school, Samuel reflected:
Yeah, … just comparing the differences [between Navajo and
English], and the culture itself … when I go to the English class,
I can really tell the difference, and how Navajo is so descriptive, and
English isnt.
A female senior reported that Navajo helped her in school because you can
compare the two different languages. Another student said that knowing
Navajo helped her because when you try to pronounce something in English,
you just say it [first] in Navajo. And [then] I write it down [in English].6 This
same girl, who aspired to become a paediatrician, said that knowing Navajo
would be helpful in her career cause kids [patients] might speak Navajo. And
their mom [might speak Navajo as well].
But not all youth at Beautiful Mountain shared these positive attachments to
Navajo language and culture. Jamie was 18 when he was interviewed in 2004.
Having grown up in a reservation border town, his primary language was
English. Jamie insisted that Navajo language and culture were just the past.
Distancing himself from his Navajoness, he stated that knowing Navajo is
important because its their [Navajos] culture. Asked if he believed there had
been a decline in the use of Navajo among young people, Jamie replied: Yes,
cuz kids dont really care anymore. At the same time, Jamie was trying to
learn Navajo in school.
These discourses reveal contradictory ideological currents that run throughout our interviews with Navajo youth and adults. A teacher aide reported that
a few of her students had insisted, Im not going to learn [Navajo]. Navajos
nothing. I hate it. During one phase of our fieldwork, school personnel were
assessing students Navajo language proficiencies. Describing her interactions
with students in one secondary classroom, the Navajo teacher charged with
administering the assessment reported:
When we were talking [to students] in Navajo they were … making
fun of us … and it really frustrated me, and I told them, this is very
sad, the way your attitude is towards your language and your
culture, … the way you are putting your language down…I told them
to really think about it because … every single one of them, they are
Navajo. You are Navajo [I said to them], take a look at yourself. If
you are laughing about your language or your culture, you are
laughing about your parents, you are laughing about your grandparents … you are Navajo and you should be proud of who you are
and your identity.
After administering the assessment, the teacher found, to her surprise, that
students knew the language but were just ashamed of it.
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These discourses were further illuminated in interview segments in which
individuals were asked to estimate the proportion of Beautiful Mountain
students who were proficient Navajo speakers. With a few exceptions, adults
uniformly placed the number at 3050%. The teacher whose interview
excerpt appears above, for instance, was initially convinced that none of the
students she was testing could comprehend the most basic Navajo terms.
Another bilingual educator maintained that No one speaks Navajo. They
only speak English now. Adolescents, on the other hand, expressed a very
different view:
Interviewer: In school, what percentage of the kids are fluent speakers
of Navajo?
Student 1: 80%.
Student 2: Probably 75%.
Student 3: 75%.
Student 4: 80%.
Student 5: Everybody knows Navajo out here.
Each of these responses was recorded in a separate, individual interview. The
responses were typical of Beautiful Mountain youth. As these data reveal,
there was wide divergence in how youth and adults responded to questions
about language proficiencies among the young, with youth consistently
providing much higher estimates. Recognising that self-assessments of
language proficiency are problematic, the divergent responses of youth and
adults nonetheless signify local perceptions of language vitality that have
important implications for language choices. A bilingual adult who believes
the child to whom she or he is speaking has little knowledge of or interest in
using Navajo is likely to address the child in English. For their part, youth may
possess greater Native language proficiency than they show, hiding it out of
shame or embarrassment. The net effect is to curtail opportunities for rich,
natural adultchild interaction in the heritage language. As Samuel explained:
Well, … a lot of [youth] tend to hide [their Native language ability] … they put a facade on, and they … try to make teachers believe that
they speak primarily [English] and werent exposed to Navajo.
Asked how he thought students at his school felt about speaking Navajo,
Samuel stated:
They probably think its important, but … theyre judged by it by other
people that speak English more clear than they do and they just kind of
feel dirty about the whole thing, and thats why they put on the
fake … and try to make it sound like they speak more English than they
do Navajo …
For some of his peers, Samuel claimed, speaking Navajo stigmatises one as
uneducated, and they havent experienced anything in the world.
This was confirmed in interviews with adults. Many of the kids around
here do speak Navajo, a Navajo school administrator stated:
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A lot of them fake not wanting to speak Navajo. I knew. Theyre
ashamed. I caught a few students who claim they only speak English
[but] there are hundreds who are fluent Navajo speakers.
A bilingual teacher assistant reported that her students pretend that their
parents are all educated, implying that parents speak only English at home.
And some of the parents dont even speak English! the teacher assistant
exclaimed. In parentteacher conferences, she had been surprised to hear
parents report that their child who claimed not to know Navajo had been
raised in a Navajo-language environment. A mother whose primary language
was Navajo reported that her to speak Navajo:
Hell say, Why do I have to speak Navajo? … Its a new world. Were
more into technology, were into the bilagaana [White, English-speaking]
world. I dont have to speak my language … We want to go forward, not
backward.
Interestingly, this mothers 17-year-old daughter told her, I want to go
forward. I want to keep my language too.
How can we understand these contradictory discourses? Jonathan provided
a remarkably sophisticated postcolonial analysis, which he referred to as the
Long Walk Syndrome. In 1864, 7000 Navajo people their sheep herds and
farms destroyed in a federal scorched earth campaign were marched at
bayonet point by the US cavalry 300 miles across wintry plains to a
concentration camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico (called Hweeldi in Navajo).
Hundreds of people perished along the way, many at the hands of soldiers;
thousands more died as a result of their incarceration. Four years later,
acknowledging Fort Sumner as a failed experiment, the federal government
released the 2000 survivors, dispossessing them of all but a fraction of their
original homelands. Recalling these events, Jonathan said:
Like I said, this Long Walk syndrome … were afraid to be punished,
were afraid that someone will whip us in the back … you forsake who
you are, you give up having to learn Navajo … [You] give all that up, in
order to accommodate the mainstream life … Thats been colonised in
the mind.
Many of these kids know how to speak Navajo, Jonathan asserted, but many
times they might be ashamed, or got that kind of self-hate
Its been pumped into them. Its not something natural. Its being told
Navajo is stupid … to speak Indian is the way of the devil, that kind of
thing…and many times, the older people will encourage English so
[their children] can make it in the White mans world…Like I said, for
me, it [early school experiences] kind of confused me. Where was I in the
world?
The psychosocial and linguistic consequences of genocide, colonisation and
language repression have been documented for speech communities around
the world. Writing of language shame among Garifuna children in Belize,
Bonner (2001: 86) notes that the cause is not language per se, but rather the
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marginalisation of Garifuna and the association of Garifuna ethnic identity
with poverty and low social status. Reese and Goldenberg (2006: 25) describe
similar processes for Spanish speakers in southern California. In a collection of
life histories reflecting the multiple face[t]s of heritage language loss,
Kouritzin (1999) demonstrates the further complicity of racism and linguicism.
I grew up feeling ashamed to be Chinese, and of course, to speak Cantonese,
a young woman of Canadian-born Cantonese parents recalled, remembering
the taunts by her classmates of Chinky, Chinky Chinamen (Kouritzin, 1999:
43). You shame people away from their language, a Cree artist and writer told
Kouritzin (1999: 6667):
… you deal with it by speaking English, and that way you dont have to
face the hurt of the loss … you hide behind the language of the
dominant society for a while … thinking youre cool because you speak
English, youre cool because you dont speak [the Native language]
anymore. Its better because now youre white, right?
Conclusions and Implications for Language Revitalisation
and Maintenance
Youth and adult discourses from Beautiful Mountain implicate a complex
array of ideological forces that underpin heritage-language shift and retention
among the young. On the one hand, many youth express pride in their
heritage language, fusing it solidly to their senses of self. For these young
people, the language is a tool for negotiating multiple languages and cultural
worlds, and a foundation to to go on for better things in life. Further, as
Samuels discourse reveals, youth recognise that the language is … [declining]
very vigorously now. On the other hand, some youth have internalised the
message conveyed and legitimated by racialised societal discourses and
marginalising practices that speaking Navajo is an emblem of shame that
must be renounced. For these youth, (marginalised) Navajo is linked with
backwardness and (privileged) English is associated with modernity and
opportunity; youth feel they must make an eitheror choice between language
affiliations.
The sociolinguistic dynamics at Beautiful Mountain are in many ways
unique among our project sites. Beautiful Mountain is a fairly conservative,
reservation-interior community, and we suspect that the situation there also
differs in some important respects from that of reservation bordertown
communities. These differences notwithstanding, the ideological cross-currents reflected in youth discourses at Beautiful Mountain have been noted for
other endangered-language communities, and language planning challenges
faced there are widely shared.
These challenges are compounded by the global spread of English and the
growing standards movement in US schools. According to youth and adults in
our study, these pressures are forcing schools to abandon heritage-language
instruction. The school can spend some time teaching Navajo, a Beautiful
Mountain teacher stated, but we cant be bogged down, … we have so many
requirements to meet. Another teacher remarked, We dont have time to teach
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Navajo. Weve been told to teach to the standards. Youth are keenly aware of
these pressures. English, Jonathan asserted, thats always taking over … Its
just hard to have … a Native thing going. Because were run by the state, and
were told to do these tests and everything.
Despite the challenges, it seems clear from this preliminary analysis that
many Native youth are deeply concerned about the future of their heritage
language. It also seems evident that in the Navajo case, youth may possess
greater heritage-language proficiency than they demonstrate or than adults
credit. Youth interests in retaining their heritage language and their (often
intentionally hidden) heritage-language proficiencies constitute critical resources for Indigenous language revitalisation and maintenance efforts.
All participants in our study stated that those efforts must begin with
parents and families in the home. Tell the parents to let the kids speak Navajo
when theyre born, the 13-year-old girl who aspired to become a peadiatrician
told us. A bilingual teacher provided this insightful commentary:
The most important thing is that it is up to us. As parents we have an
opinion about it and the responsibility belongs to us, we, the mothers
and fathers. And our leaders have ownership to part of it too. How might
they be thinking about all of this for us? … We are called Indigenous and
we are looked at as such … I want it to remain that way in the
future … You decide not to let them [outsiders] take away your
language to let it die.
We concur with these sentiments, but recognise that parents and families need
support if their efforts are to have the desired effects. Writing about her native
Hopi language, Sheilah Nicholas (2005: 36) describes this challenge as
reinvigorating the community ethic of putting our hearts together for a
common purpose. This involves recognition that the major upheaval of the
Hopi way of life has left them with little alternative but to … reimagine a way
of life that accommodates changes from within the community (Nicholas,
2005: 36). Hualapai educator Lucille Watahomigie (1995: 191) speaks of the
need for reverse brainwashing: educating community members on the
importance and priority of the values and knowledge embodied in our
culture. Romeros (2003) and Simss (2001) research on Keres, the heritage
language of the New Mexico Pueblos of Cochiti and Acoma, illustrates the
ways in which community language surveys can open new possibilities for
dialogue and change:
On the one hand, findings [from the surveys] pointed to the possibility of
the loss of the Keres language within the next several decades or
sooner…On the other hand, the findings revealed that there remained a
considerable number of fluent speakers … and, if revitalization efforts
were initiated promptly and carefully, language shift could be stemmed
and even reversed. (Romero & McCarty, 2006: 11)
Much more on the ground research is needed on these processes and their
impacts. Further research also is needed on the relationship of language
revitalisation to American Indian student achievement, a focus of the present
study. There are many promising precedents that already have shown positive
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correlations between heritage-language learning and student achievement,
among them Native-language immersion programmes in Hawaii (Warner,
2001; Wilson & Kamana, 2001) and at Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation
(Arviso & Holm, 2001; Holm & Holm, 1995; see also Burnaby & Reyhner, 2002;
Huss et al., 2003; May, 1999; May & Aikman, 2003; McCarty & Zepeda, 1998).
We conclude by returning to Jonathans fiercely hopeful words, quoted in
the epigraph that begins this paper. Most youth in our study indicated that
they value the heritage language, view it as integral to their senses of self, want
and expect adults to teach it to them, and employ it as a strategic tool to
facilitate their English language learning in school. Native youth discourses
problematise a monolingual English status quo, calling upon adults to respond
by creating opportunities to learn in and through the heritage language. As
expressions of youth concerns about the future of their people, their language
and their culture, youth discourses constitute potent testimony capable of
informing local, tribal, state and national language education planning and
policy.
Language policies and practices are human-built and thus malleable to
change. Youth have much to teach us about the strategies we might employ in
creating policies and practices that support heritage-language retention. Our
role, then, is to listen and to act.
Acknowledgements
We wish to acknowledge support from the US Department of Education,
Institute of Education Sciences, for providing the funding for the Native
Language Shift and Retention Study. We also thank the CRCs, research
assistants, and the Alice Wiley Snell Endowment for Education Policy Studies
for support of the senior authors work on the project. All data, statements,
opinions, and conclusions or implications in this paper solely reflect the view
of the authors and research participants, and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the funding agency, tribes or their tribal councils, the Arizona Board
of Regents or Arizona State University, under whose auspices the project
operates. This information is presented in the pursuit of academic research
and is published in this volume solely for educational and research purposes.
Pursuant to our agreement with the Arizona State University Internal Review
Board, this paper may not be reproduced in any medium, transmitted or
distributed, in whole or in part, without the authors prior written consent.
Correspondence
Any correspondence should be directed to Teresa L. McCarty, Division of
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Arizona State University, PO Box
872411, Tempe, 43 85287-2411, USA ([email protected]).
Notes
1. This excludes the 1990/1992 Native American Languages Act (NALA), which
supports the teaching of Native American languages as second languages. Funding
for NALA, however, is miniscule in comparison to that available under other
federal legislation that has historically supported some form of bilingual education
for students whose first language is not English (i.e. the Bilingual Education Act
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[BEA] of 1968). With the passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the BEA
was recast as the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and
Academic Achievement Act. Although this legislation includes a provision for
instructional programmes for Native American children studying Indigenous
languages, such programmes are clearly not intended to promote, revitalise or
maintain those languages. The legislation specifies that the outcomes of these
programmes shall be increased English proficiency (Sec. 3216).
2. The metaphor of linguistic ecology comes from Haugen (1972), who traces it to
Voegelin and Voegelin (1964). Our concern is with a specific aspect of this
metaphor: language endangerment. As Hornberger (2003: 321) notes, the focus on
language endangerment is not only about studying and describing language loss,
but about counteracting it (see also Mu hlhau sler, 1996).
3. In Gees (1996) framework, (lower-case) discourses constitute and are constituted
by (upper-case) Discourses ways of being in the world, … a sort of identity
kit or way of using language that identifies one as a member of a social group
(Gee, 1996: 143). In the present analysis, we examine the ways in which Native
youth discourses on heritage languages reflect and constitute Discourses. This is
not a discourse analysis in the more technical and linguistic sense employed by
Gee and others (i.e. analysis of prosody, cohesion, contextualisation, organisation).
Rather, we are concerned with youth discourses as manifestations of ideologies
about language that in turn have an impact on language practices and choices.
4. For more on this, see Benally and Viri (2005), Lomawaima and McCarty (2006:
ch. 7), McCarty (2002a, 2002b: ch. 13) and Watahomigie and McCarty (1996).
5. Charter schools are state-funded schools linked through formal agreements to
authorising entities such as public school systems, but chartered by a distinctive
mission. In the case of this charter school site, the mission is to serve as an
academically rigorous, bicultural, community-based high school for Native youth.
6. What these youth are describing is metalinguistic awareness, an ability developed
in the context of bi/multilingualism that has been shown to enhance cognitive
flexibility.
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