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4. Appeals, News and Views from Endangered Communities

Pavel V. Zheltov: Minority languages and computerization. The situation in the Russian Federation.

tchouvachie at

Computers are becoming an inseparable part of human life all over the planet. Computerization penetrates all areas of human life’s activity, including not only professional and educational areas, but also communication, entertainment and service. Since the interaction of computer and user is realized with the help of user interface and through natural language, computer environment is becoming part of language tradition and policy, along with printed media and other mass media. Moreover it is coming to occupy the main place in this list, as the others are often mediated through it.

As is well-known, English has spread worldwide not only because of the leadership of English speaking countries in economy and politics, but also as a language for software interface, computer production and programming.

As the greatest part of software production is widely used and sold in various foreign countries beyond USA and the British Commonwealth, software producers are taking the responsibility of integrating into their software the support of regional languages and standards. Microsoft software production, the widely spread operational system Windows XP and its applications for example, supports almost all national languages, as well as some others which are widely used among large populations (for example Yi, Punjabi, and Kashmiri). Many of them are supported only partly.

As for minority languages, very few have been included in the list of Microsoft Windows multi-language support (text services and input language): for example Cherokee, from US native minority languages, and Tatar and Bashkir from minority languages of Russian Federation, the last present only in Russian version of Microsoft Windows XP.

Other minority languages of Russian Federation, which in spite of being endangered by Russian, sufficiently enough serve their ethnics in press, elementary education and mass media, have been left out.

Thus Russian language conserves the monopoly in the process of Russian Federation’s computerization, which endangers the existence of minority languages.

This attitude of many software companies towards the support of minority languages is probably due to economic considerations and the lack of trained personnel, skilled in minority languages. Software customers from populations using minority languages are so few in comparaison with the common quantity of all potential customers that the expenses for minority languages support would not not recovered. Moreover minority-language users often know their states’ official language (for example Russian) better then their native ones. A second factor is the difficulty of finding and employing minority peoples representatives, with qualifications in programming and their native languages, to organize such language support.

We must note though that some Russian and foreign software companies, aware of this fact, have begun to produce multi-language support of their production for Russian Federation’s minority languages, which is an encouraging tendency. For example the well-known ABBY, which produces the widely used scanning software FineReader, has included in its character-set many national symbols (Chuvash, Komi and even Chukot [Chukchi]), so that as of FineReader’s trial version 7.0 you can scan texts in those languages.

The company ParaWin also produces fonts and Windows XP/ME/98 keyboard layouts for many minority languages of Russia. But this makes them only languages of applications text input and not system text input, because system fonts, such as Tahoma, don’t include these character-sets and you are not able to give a file a Chuvash name.

So, unless they cease to rely on Microsoft or Russian software companies’ help, and instead undertake their own work-arounds for this problem, minority people won’t be able to computerize their languages. That is why most minority languages in the Russian Federation are far from being used for user interface and computer environment (games, entertainment and automated working places).

The fact is that minority languages of the Russian Federation (except for Tatar, and to a lesser extent Chuvash), have no tradition of scientific and technical use beyond being employed in schools for mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology lessons (until the 1960s for Chuvash). Nowadays most of them are used only in areas of popular culture.

This problem for the Russian Federation is a very complex one, and so we consider it here in some detail.

Of the 75 native minority peoples of Russian Federation 31 have their own national territorial subdivisions, 21 of them being republics – autonomous national states, parts of Russian Federation with their own government structure, analogous to federal structures. They have two official languages – national and Russian, a chief or president, a constitution, [which can never contradict federal law], state symbols, ministries and boards [many of them directly subordinate to federal analogues]. Surprisingly, in many subdivisions of Russian Federation minority languages are second official ones just nominally, functioning in reality only as languages of family communication and preliminary education (kindergartens and elementary grades of secondary schools, taught as the subject “native language” in higher grades), as well as at radio, TV and press, lagging considerably behind Russian in these areas. In graduate schools and universities they are used for education in national philology departments, if any. They have, as a rule, a limited use in government, some but not all bills being bilingual. Some national regions run budget deficits, which are covered by support from the federal centre, a situation which limits their autonomy. Some of them have a rather weak industrial base and low scientific and technical potential, being only the source of raw materials or out-of-date agricultural regions.

Despite the initial attempt at legislative support and functional expansion for minority languages made in the 1990s, many native languages of the Russian Federation are in very unfavorable conditions, which may lead to their gradual extinction. These mostly concern subdivisions, where the native nation is traditionally Orthodox Christianity, a religion adopted from the Russians. People from Orthodox minority communities have mainly Russian names (personal and surnames) and are strongly influenced by Russian language and culture. In many cases, their self-awareness and self-organization are rather weak, and their national elites and business class are also likely to lack influence. Most minority peoples have a traditional agricultural set-up and culture, and have only a recent tradition of urban life (beginning in the 20th century). Yet in urban conditions, even in the family, Russian will supersede minority languages. This has to do with the fact that minority peoples nowhere dominate in the cities, and city districts are not separated by nationality.

Industry and urban life were traditionally considered Russian culture’s property, so minority people’s representatives, once migrated to the city, are surrounded by a Russian-speaking environment. Thus in many national regions the typical situation is for a married couple, coming from country to city, to continues to communicate with each other in their native language, but communicate with their children from their early childhood only in Russian.

Moreover when people traditionally profess the same religion as Russians and have Russian names and last names, they are not always distinguishable from them by appearance. This forms a tradition, so that the number of people, speaking minority languages in the cities remains constant only due to the influx from countryside. The city-born minority people’s representatives mostly prefer to speak Russian in all areas of their activity, even if they can speak their native language. That is why national village remains the base of existence of almost all orthodox minority peoples and their languages.

But computerization penetrates almost any village (for example all village schools of Chuvash Republic were computerized by the end 2004), bringing Russian and English apart from the native languages, and is affecting the younger generation, potentially a dangerous development. Children begin to use computer as an object for entertainment and games almost from the age of five.

Thus the future of many minority peoples, whose languages are already endangered, may depend on whether they could be able to introduce their languages into computer environment or not.

It mostly affects Orthodox minority peoples, who traditionally merge with Russians and affects less Moslem and Buddhist ones.

That is why Tatarstan and Bashkortostan Republics as the most rich, economically and industrially developed national regions (Tatar and Bashkir nations professing mainly Islam), which have a considerable scientific and technical potential, have joined the process of their languages and culture computerization from the very beginning, from the 1990s, when MS Windows (the trial 3.x) was spread in Russia only in English and was being russified in Moscow, as Microsoft didn’t support Russian language at those time. Tatars began to develop computer support for their language themselves: they had created a scientific laboratory in 1993 in Kazan on the basis of Kazan State University and Tatarstan’s Academy of Science, with the support of Tatarstan’s government, to work on problems of Tatar language computer support ( and have elaborated a long-term strategy for spreading their culture and language through computer, using computer as means of mass influence.

In a short time they tatarized Windows, standardized Tatar computer fonts, created text editors with spell-correctors for Tatar, computer games in Tatar and with elements of Tatar culture, automated workstations for agronomists, linguists and accountants with Tatar language as the language of the user interface and text input. After an official application from Tatar representatives, Microsoft has included Tatar language in the list of Microsoft language support for free. Moreover the Tatar language, by its number of speakers (5.55 millions), cannot be considered as endangered. (In Russia it is second only to Russian).

Bashkirs have chosen a different strategy. Accordingly, computer support of Bashkir is realized by Moscow software companies (including Russian representatives of Microsoft). That is why one can find Bashkir only in the russified version of Windows XP, sold by Russian representatives of Microsoft.

As for the other native minority languages of Russian Federation, we can only note the fact that current situation about their computer support and functioning is very unfavourable. What we have for most of them now is:

1) sets of non standardized fonts (most Russian and foreign software companies produce national fonts only if ordered), made by different publishers and private persons, national symbols having different encoding in different fonts, thus a text typed in one national font becomes unreadable when you change it to another ; 2) keyboard layouts for Windows 98/05/2000/XP, which also don’t correspond to the occurrence of alphabet symbols and their combinations. National symbols in them are often set onto outlying keys, as an implementation of Russian keyboard layout.

So we can use them as input languages in a limited number of software applications (text and graphical editors mainly). We cannot use them for file names and we cannot even utter a word about using them as user’s interface languages (in applications and system menus and messages).

So we need to:

1) standardize national fonts on the basis of Unicode standard and replace the non standardized old fonts with new ones; Microsoft reserved places for almost all Cyrillic additive symbols in its Unicode fonts, but didn’t fill them yet;

2) create text converters for conversion of texts typed using old fonts into the new standard;

3) create an accurate national keyboard layout for each language, which would correspond to the occurrence of its alphabet symbols and their combinations;

4) create correctors for text services (for MS Office and MS Word for example), which would find spelling and syntax errors in texts;

5) include national languages into MS Windows user’s interface, by translating menus and messages.

These five options realize the so-called national computer environment for Windows. The first four options make a language an input language, supported by system and text services while the last option makes it a language for user interface. For the realization of the last two options we must obtain the permission of Microsoft to modify and expand its software or appeal to its representatives for intrusion of our national language into Microsoft Office list of supported languages for free and help them by making correctors and translating all menus and messages. The last option requires the existence/creation of special computer terminology (existing nowadays only for Tatar, Bashkir and Chuvash). In case of Microsoft’s refusal we can only realize 3 options from the list and spread the environment after having registered it and obtained a license.

The author of this article has been occupied with the problem of national-language computerization since 1998. We have created an environment for Chuvash language, which includes 3 options from the list above and have created a dictionary of Chuvash computer terminology (not printed yet). But the absence of financial support prevents us from buying a license. The author appealed also to Microsoft’s Moscow representatives and filled a special application for including Chuvash in the list of Microsoft Office language support, but my application was left without consideration. We have also elaborated a project of creation of Chuvash language computerization laboratory on the basis of Chuvash Republic’s Academy of Science, which was supported by the Academy’s president, but declined by the head of Chuvash Republic’s Informatisation Department due to the lack of finances.

The situation described above is typical for most minority languages of Russian Federation. That is why we have only a social way of solving this problem: founding a popular organization on minority languages computerization. But the absence of primary capital, needed for its registration and obtaining licensed software tools creates obstacles to this.

There is a way out of this situation however. I propose to FEL with the help of interested software companies to organize a department/company for computerization of minority languages. Software companies can help us if not by donations, then by passing for free the right to use their software production license and licensed software tools. This department/company would coordinate and organize the free work of enthusiasts all over the world, passing them for free software tools, licensing and spreading the production for minority language computerization they make. It would also make environments for fees if ordered. This department/company could gain profit by trading minority people’s computerized culture online (the latter is not possible without creating environments, which won’t give much profit themselves) and use it for minority languages computerization needs by giving grants to enthusiasts, as well as for paying the salary to its staff.

Trading minority people’s computerized culture online means:

1) creating and trading computer games on national subjects;
2) creating and selling films and e-books in culture and traditions of minority peoples;
3) organizing sponsored conferences and collection of contributions.

As all this is in conformity with FEL’s activity it is very reasonable to organize it exactly on the basis of FEL. Having a worldwide status it would be easier for this department to negotiate with Microsoft and with local governments on the subject of receiving financial aids and spreading its production.

In conclusion we must note that the problem of such a department’s foundation requires a special detailed consideration, possibly with the organization of an FEL subcommittee, with the participation of all interested parties. The author of this article welcomes all interested people and organizations. Suggestions can be sent to tchouvachie at, please note the subject MLC (minority languages computerization).

The size of most numerous native nationalities of Russian Federation (after the official site of Russian Federation’s Federal Service of Statistics at )

South Africa May Cut Seven Tongues Out

25 April 2005 Millicent Merton, (SA)

The possibility of four official languages instead of 11 was raised at a discussion over the weekend on mother-tongue education. Dr Neville Alexander, director of the Project for the Research of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa), said if the correct approach was used, people would not feel threatened or think that it was wrong to have only four official languages.

He said this could happen within the next 10 years. A concept document, drawn up by a group of language experts, suggested that national government departments accept a minimum of four official languages. These languages were Sotho, Afrikaans, English and an Nguni language (Zulu or Xhosa). Other languages would be phased in systematically to encourage multi-lingual skills.

Language experts said it was unpractical to have 11 official languages. The languages spoken by fewer people often lagged behind as a result of the enormous costs of advancing all languages. Alexander welcomed the government's decision to appoint people to the public service only if that person could speak an indigenous language. He said this would help increase the market value of African languages.

Referring to Mikro Primary School in Kuils River, he said the court case brought by a public school over language could hamper the multi-lingual approach in education. The governing body of this Afrikaans-medium school turned to the court to contest a decision by the Western Cape education department that the school should enrol English-speaking pupils.

Alexander said he was not sure whether the provincial minister of education knew it could take years to overturn the decision should the Appeal Court decide in favour of Mikro. He said smaller languages should not be marginalised and parallel-medium education should be the norm in urban areas.

Mohawks wary of Microsoft: Some fear computer giant is out to make money off language and culture with software

30 April 2005, Sue Montgomery, Montreal Gazette

Several Kahnawake residents suspect computer giant Microsoft Corp. is out to make money off their language and culture by developing software allowing people to use Windows in Mohawk."They own the whole world. Why would we want them owning us?" said Selma Delisle, one of the critics.

But band council members, who recently reached a tentative deal with Microsoft to develop the software, say they see it as just another way of immersing people in a language they're trying to preserve. Everyone, especially young people, uses computers, they say. "You can tell (the critics) the reason it's sunny out is because there's no clouds and they wouldn't get it," council member Keith Myiow said. "They're ignorant." Tom Scott, director of community information technology in Kahnawake, contends people are making a fuss for nothing. "This would just be another facet of the language's preservation," he said. "In this day and age, why not use the tools available?"

Microsoft contends the whole kerfuffle is an unfortunate misunderstanding. "We don't have any intention of buying the language," said Mina Garbi, Windows international program manager. "You can't own a language. Our intention is to work with the community for the community."

Two years ago, Microsoft began developing software compatible with less widely used languages. The company has developed software for 13 such languages, including Inuktitut. The next frontiers include obscure African and Latin American languages, so people in remote communities can use Internet cafes, for example. The software can be downloaded free but must be used with the Windows operating system.

"I know it sounds like something we're doing for revenue, but we're not," Garbi said. Asked whether the point is to get the entire world using Windows, Garbi wouldn't comment. She agreed to pass the question onto a public relations person, but an answer never came. "(The Mohawks) have genuine concerns, like why are we doing this and are we making money off it, and I respect that," she said. "We're trying to address those."

But people like Delisle see it in the same light as pharmaceutical firms trying to patent traditional aboriginal medicinal plants. Scott said the project will cost the band council $57,000. Microsoft is donating the technology.

Kahnawake's Cultural Centre, which has led the way in preserving and teaching Mohawk - or Kanienke'ha - is also leading the charge against the agreement. The centre's director, Donna Goodleaf, was out of town yesterday and couldn't be reached for comment. But in interviews with the community's local paper, the Eastern Door, she pointed out that the seven other Mohawk communities weren't consulted on the deal. In addition, the contract stipulates that once developed, the software belongs to Microsoft and can't be fiddled with. "But language can change," said one opponent, who didn't want her name used. "Language isn't standardized across communities, so newer words can differ."

Setu people against new Estonian-Russian border treaty

May 17, 2005
Alexander Shegedin, Eurolang

Tomorrow on May 18th in Moscow, Estonia and Russia will sign a border treaty. Up until now the border between the two countries has not been fully agreed upon. In 1940 Estonia was annexed into the Soviet Union, while the previous Estonian-Russian border was defined by the Tartu peace treaty of 1920. According to the new treaty the border is the same as it was in Soviet times between the two then Soviet republics, Estonia and Russia. It means that the historic region East Setumaa, or, in Russian, the Pechori region, the land of the Setu ethnic group, will stay as part of Russia. In 1920-1940 it was a part of the Estonian Republic. The Estonian Setu want a return to the border defined in the Tartu treaty where all Setu lands were in Estonia.

The Setu people speak a unique dialect of Estonian, which has been influenced by Russian. Unlike Estonians, they are mostly Orthodox. At the moment Setu are living on the both sides of the border, but mostly on Estonian territory. In the Russian East Setumaa/ Pechori region live around 200 to 400 families.

Many Setu who live in Estonia have made claims for their ancestors’ farms in East Setumaa and demand their restoration under the terms of the Tartu peace treaty. Some Estonian right-wing politicians have used this as part of their campaign against the new border treaty.

On May 9th the Setu Congress organization conducted a picket near the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, protesting against the new border treaty. They handed over an appeal with 7,000 signatures to Ene Ergma, the parliaments speaker.

Setu Congress leaders have pointed out that the Setu language and culture are in danger in Russia. However, commentators have noted that protest comes from the Setu who live in Estonia with little sign of protest from the Setu in Russia.

Radio shows bridge Guatemalan languages Mam, Q'anjob'al and Quiche

June 14, 2005
Tania Valdemoro

Melodies first heard more than 1,500 years ago filled a broadcast studio Sunday morning when Herlinda Francisco changed compact discs. A caller from Jupiter had just requested a "marimba autoctona" song. The genre is one of Guatemala's oldest forms of music, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Its steady marimba is usually played at village dances, Francisco said.

Between sets of marimba and cumbia music, Mayan activists on WPSP-1190 AM discussed farmworker rights, local job opportunities and locations for sending cash remittances to Guatemala in Mam, Q'anjob'al and Quiche — indigenous Guatemalan languages rarely heard across the Florida airwaves.

The two-hour weekly program is one of three radio shows in the state broadcasting music and discussion about the culture and experiences of Guatemalan immigrants in America.

Through its partnership with Sterio Nebaj in Guatemala, the West Palm Beach-based show reaches an audience of 15,000 to 20,000 listeners in Guatemala and Florida, Francisco said. The show's broadcast extends locally from Martin to Broward counties.

In the western part of the state, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers broadcasts a two-hour show in Mam and Q'anjob'al on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on WCTI-107.9 FM, known as Radio Conciencia. The shows are limited to the Immokalee area and reach about 5,000 people, said Rolando Sales, who hosts his show in Mam.

There are 372,487 Guatemalans in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Of the 28,650 Guatemalans in Florida, 6,576 live in Palm Beach County.

The radio programs aim to preserve Mayan language and culture primarily by speaking in various dialects and playing native music, Francisco said.

"We are not Hispanic," said Miguel Angel Chiquin-Yat, who founded the show in 1998 with Francisco and three others from the Lake Worth-based Organization of Maya People in Exile. "We speak Spanish, but we are Mayans."

With 22 indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala, communicating to a wide audience can be a tall order. Out of necessity, Chiquin-Yat and Sales introduce songs and music segments in Spanish. The majority of Guatemalans, however, speak one or more Mayan languages; several do not speak Spanish at all, Chiquin-Yat said.

Since February, the two groups have teamed up to broadcast a Mayan radio show every month, Sales said. He came to West Palm Beach from Immokalee Sunday to host the morning radio show with Chiquin-Yat.

As a result, listeners in Palm Beach, Martin and Broward counties learn more about Guatemalans living in Immokalee, and vice versa. Sales and fellow farmworker Roberto Mendez spent several minutes after every music set discussing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' mission to lobby for higher wages and promote farmworker rights.

Among labor groups, the coalition is well-known for its three-year boycott of Taco Bell, which ended in March when the company agreed to pay a penny-a-pound increase to farmworkers picking tomatoes.

The weekly Mayan language shows have proven to be a hit, radio hosts said. Many listeners send CDs of marimba and cumbia music to the radio stations, thereby boosting the shows' music selections and keeping them up to date with the latest songs.

Sales said locals have tuned in to his show because they know they can hear marimba for an hour. Unlike the West Palm Beach show, the Immokalee shows devote their second hour of programming to translating discussions from Spanish to Mam and Q'anjob'al and vice versa.

Still, radio hosts said they must work diligently to attract and retain listeners. The target audience for all three shows are people who already listen to a myriad of Spanish-language stations. Radio Conciencia and WPSP both play Latin-American music. The key to engaging listeners is to provide them with relevant information and use the radio to help them solve problems, said Lucas Benitez, the coalition's executive director.

Radio Conciencia is obligated to serve the needs of its local community in exchange for its broadcast license, which the Federal Communications Commission granted two years ago after a lengthy application process. The station is one of Florida's 106 low-power FM stations.

In 2000, the FCC began granting broadcast licenses to community-based groups that serve low-income communities. There are 600 low-power FM stations nationwide. Federal lawmakers are considering whether to expand the program further.

Chiquin-Yat said his group is researching ways to get its own radio station like their Immokalee brothers. The group pays $15,000 a year to use WPSP's facilities, he said.

In what is expected to be an active hurricane season, both groups said they would use the airwaves to make sure farmworkers and others are prepared for the storms.

"Many people were spooked by the hurricanes," said Benitez, referring to the majority of farmworkers who return in September to pick tomatoes and oranges for several weeks. Their return coincides with the time when hurricanes often increase in size and strength.

This year, Benitez will broadcast hurricane information in Mam, Q'anjob'al and two Mexican dialects, Zapotec and Mixtec, as well as in Creole. Chiquin-Yat also plans to provide farmworkers in Palm Beach and Martin counties with hurricane news.

But Sunday's show made no mention of the hurricanes despite the passing of Tropical Storm Arlene Saturday over Florida's Gulf Coast. Thousands of Mayans in Lake Worth lost power and safe drinking water last year after Hurricane Frances struck.

The radio programs have become indispensable, Mayan activists said, because they enable Guatemalan immigrant communities to survive economically and culturally.

"We are proud to be able to speak in our own languages and reach a mass audience," Benitez said. "It helps farmworkers learn the laws of the United States and their responsibilities as residents here."

I dial it in and tune the station

kusteeyí Programme is 'nest' for Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian

June 16, 2005
Eric Fry

Learning Tlingit has changed the lives of the 10 or so young adults in Juneau who have dedicated themselves to the language, one student says. "We had fairly life-changing experiences when we took it to heart to keep the language going, because of the Tlingit concept of respect," Vivian Mork said.

Mork said Tlingit wasn't spoken fluently in Wrangell when she grew up there.

She began to study Tlingit after moving to Juneau in 2002 to enroll in a summer language program, kusteeyí, sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute. She also enrolled at the University of Alaska Southeast, which has a Tlingit program.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit that administers cultural and educational programs for Sealaska Corp., the for-profit Native corporation in Southeast Alaska.

Classes in the Kusteey Program, now in its seventh year, begin this year as early as June 20 in Ketchikan and Aug. 1 in Juneau.

kusteeyí,pronounced [qhusteeyi] with high-final tone, means 'way of life', or 'culture'. The kusteeyí Program helped instill the importance of learning Tlingit, Mork said. She called the program a "nest" for languages.

"When you lose the language, you lose an entire way of looking at the world," she said. Now some of the Tlingit-language students are beginning to teach it. That was one of the program's goals.

This past school year, Mork and Jessica Chester taught Tlingit as an elective to about 90 students at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. The middle school students, about half of whom were Native, were required to study their family history and learn to introduce themselves in Tlingit by referring to their ancestors.

"The really neat thing is when Native students start to learn the language and start to learn about themselves," Mork said.

In about 10 years, the elderly fluent speakers of Tlingit will be gone, Mork said. To save the language, it has to become the language of children, she said.

"For a language to survive, it must have a mother-tongue acquisition," she said. "It must be spoken in the home and learned at a young age, and used every day."

Sealaska Heritage will offer language classes in Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian this summer. Students can receive college credit for completing the classes, which are co-sponsored by UAS.

All three languages will be taught in Ketchikan. The Juneau program offers courses in Tlingit, second-language teaching methods and developing Tlingit-language materials.

Tlingit-language immersion retreats are scheduled for Angoon and Haines, as well.

The summer program attracts students who are committed to learning a Native language through a variety of ways, such as university courses in the regular school year and community discussion groups, said Yarrow Vaara, a language specialist at Sealaska Heritage.

"This is just another opportunity for them to explore that," she said, but in a concentrated way.

The summer courses use a teaching method called total physical response. The idea is that the students, who are mostly adults, will learn a second language the way a baby learns its first language: by being spoken to in the language and responding with actions that show understanding.

Students become comfortable with the language before they speak it, Vaara said.

This is the third and final year for the immersion retreats, which have been funded through a federal grant, Sealaska Heritage officials said.

Students speak only in Tlingit during the retreats, which are scheduled for July 5-14 in Angoon and Aug. 15-24 in Haines. The retreats are best-suited to intermediate students, Vaara said.

"The first couple of days it's just like trying to learn how to talk all over again," she said. "It's reprogramming your brain."

Language programme preserves Acoma's Keresan language

June 29, 2005
Will Kie

ACOMITA - Six boys sit around a table with leather and metal tools piled in front of them.

Across the room, five girls gather around another table topped with sewing machines and a rainbow of fabric. In this makeshift classroom at the Acoma Senior Citizens Center, the Acoma Language Retention Program brings together young and old tribal members in traditional activities that will enable Acoma culture to be preserved and passed on to future generations.

A little over eight years ago, the Acoma Language Retention Program was started as a way of teaching the Keresan language to several generations of non-Keresan speaking Acoma children. Ninety youngsters enrolled.

Acoma tribal member and director of the language program, Vina Leno, said her past four years with the program have been the best of her 33 years serving the Acoma people. "This program has been the most rewarding, and I truly enjoy working with our community members," she said.

Leno said the program began back in 1997 when two women, Dr. Christine Simms from the University of New Mexico Department of Linguistics, and Donna Boynton, a certified teacher from Acoma, got together with a group of elders and discussed what losing the Keresan language might mean for the future of the pueblo.

"The elders agreed that if we do not teach the language to the young ones, we will eventually lose our language and then we will not have a culture," said Leno. She said the first group of students was assembled in what was called an "immersion camp."

Leno said the feedback from the students that first summer was extremely positive, and the students asked if they could study Keresan again every summer.

According to Leno, the following year the two women submitted their first planning grant to the Administration for Native Americans. The tribe was awarded $50,000 to survey the Acoma community about the importance of developing a language-retention program.

Leno said the tribal members responded favorably to a community-based language program. "The results showed that a lot of our young people wanted to speak the language," she said.

The program has continued to hold an immersion camp every summer, said Leno, focusing on a different age group each year. She said some children came back to the program and told their teachers that when they tried to speak Keresan at home, their parents did not understand the language. "Our program director at the time felt that there was also a need to teach the parents," said Leno.

The director went on to explain that the program had to educate the elders about new language teaching methods that were being used to teach the Acoma students. "Our people used to learn the language by talking to their parents or grandparents, but now things are different," said Leno. She added that not all parents and grandparents could speak the language fluently enough to teach other family members.

Acoma language teachers are now certified by the pueblo and have access to the Cibola County school system where they teach classes at Laguna-Acoma and Cubero, and also at the Sky City Community School. "We also discovered that one group that was not being helped was the high school aged student," said Leno.

Leno said the program has had tribal members come to the program wanting to teach Keresan, but they discover that just being able to speak the language does not mean they can teach it. "They find out there are lesson plans to develop, and they say that is not how we were taught the language," Leno said.

Leno said it was a little difficult to get the elders to understand that the kids of today are learning in a classroom setting and that new methods can be applied when teaching an ancient language.

The Acoma Retention Program currently has 11 students and is conducting classes in moccasin making for the boys and traditional dress making for the girls. From 2-4:30 p.m., the students - with their Keresan names pinned to their shirts - take instruction from Acoma elders, learning the names of their "tools" in the Keresan dialect.

"I like it, it is fun and I get to make my own dress instead of asking someone else to make me one," said Doreena Howeya, a student in the program. Howeya said making the dresses is not hard because the teachers have been making it fun to learn.

Leno said some elders were also concerned that the students would not benefit from learning the old ways when they venture beyond the reservation. "Here is the western way and the traditional way. The students don't need either way, they need both ways in order to survive and identify themselves as Acoma people," Leno said.

"Nihina'nitin baa'diil diih"? Navajos move to take control of classrooms from states

ASSOCIATED PRESS Tues, 06 September 2005 - 12 noon

PHOENIX -- Navajo Nation leaders have taken an initial step toward taking over control of their classrooms from the state, saying they'd be better off to run schools on their territory.

Schools on the reservation are currently overseen by the Arizona, Utah and New Mexico Departments of Education as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Parochial schools are under the purview of the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico. But in July, Navajo Nation legislators exercised sovereign powers to change their education code, creating an 11-member board and a superintendent of schools to be in place by 2017.

"It would be a department equal to or better than the three where our children attend schools," said Leland Leonard, director of Navajo Nation's Division of Dine Education. "The current academic approach is a borrowed concept from BIA and the state. We want to close the achievement gap by building our own standards."

Navajo leaders say creating their own department of education and instituting their own testing and learning standards would be better suited for Navajo students. That could mean Navajo students would not need to take state-mandated tests, such as Arizona's AIMS test, to receive a high school diploma or even glance at the national standardized test.

However, Navajo leaders say they're not interested in assuming financial control of the state's $140 million budget for the schools, which educates 21,000 students.

State officials seem open to the concept if transferring control of schools to Native American governments but say it's a difficult prospect. The Navajo Nation has eight large public schools, many located in urban residential areas like Tuba City, Kayenta and Chinle.

Tom Horne, superintendent of Arizona Public Instruction, said he agreed to be "open-minded" about the Navajo Nation's plan and had met with tribal leaders in June. However, district employees, governing school board members and parents from Navajo district school are already inquiring about how realistic the Navajo Nation plan is, Horne said.

Percy Deal, a member of the board of supervisors in Navajo County, is ecstatic about the tribe's philosophy to exert sovereignty. What troubles him is the elimination of Arizona standards and the high-stakes tests like AIMS and TerraNova.

"That is to say, we have our own standards and we only learn about our little world and we don't want our students to compete on the national level. That is wrong," Deal said. "Our children's world, their future, is not within the Navajo Nation. It is outside the reservation. So they have to compete nationally."

National test scores at reservation public schools fall below the 50th national percentile mark in language arts, math and reading. Navajo students improved on AIMS 2005, a test which was made easier to take than in previous years.

"I'm still responsible for the academic performance of the schools. If they (Navajo Nation) want to take over that responsibility, they have to convince Congress to pass a law transferring that responsibility from me to them," Horne told The Arizona Republic.

Leonard, former chief executive officer of the Phoenix Indian Center, believes Navajo-crafted curriculum, standards and testing would benefit Navajo children. For example, he said school districts could require that the Navajo language be taught as part of the curriculum.

Horne said the state does not object to the teaching of Navajo language and culture with one exception -- students must still become proficient at English.

Cyndi Thompson, a parent at Chinle Unified School District, said many parents are unaware of the tribe's plan to consolidate all schools under its own department of education.

She said she's satisfied with her children's schools but admits she overhears the community repeat, "Nihina'nitin baa'diil diih," or "our oral Navajo philosophy and instruction is fading."

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page D4. The URL for this story is: