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PUEBLO DE COCHITI – Phillip Quintana arrived for his first day at a Head Start classroom to find the teacher delivering instructions he couldn’t understand.
She spoke only English.
At 5 or 6 years old, Quintana knew only Keres, a language shared by seven pueblos in New Mexico, each with its own dialect.
“It was emphasized at the schools: ‘Stop talking Indian, your native language,’ ” Quintana, now 63 and the Pueblo de Cochiti governor, said. “It was a little rough.”
For more than 100 years, his experience as a child was common throughout the United States. Native American students at day and boarding schools – even within tribal boundaries – faced punishment inside the classroom for speaking the only language they knew.
But a growing movement in New Mexico aims to revitalize the Indigenous languages that schools once tried to extinguish.
The work is playing out within learning centers on tribal land, inside public school classrooms and among elders building a workbook of their language.
“We’re proud to say that we’re still here,” Quintana said, “and we still have our language.”
A critical part of the strategy is a new state law endorsed by the state’s 23 tribes, nations and pueblos. The legislation – passed without a dissenting vote earlier this year – is set to boost the pay of educators certified to teach a Native American language.
Regis Pecos, a former Pueblo de Cochiti governor and member of the tribal council, described it as a “revolutionary” change given the long history of discrimination against Native American students.
Where schools once were used to kill Indigenous languages, he said, they now will be an instrument of their survival.
“It is the centerpiece of our vision of education,” Pecos said of the new law.
The push to maintain Indigenous languages comes amid fear they might disappear.
Some pueblo languages are spoken only in New Mexico, nowhere else in the world. Other Native languages, such as Navajo, or Diné, are spoken both inside and outside the state.
“Across the board, they’re all in a very vulnerable, fragile state right now, some more than others simply because of the low numbers of fluent speakers left in some communities,” University of New Mexico professor Christine Sims said in an interview.
She is director of the American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center at UNM, founded in 2008 to support Indigenous language revitalization. Sims, a member of Acoma Pueblo, speaks a dialect of Keres.
Scores – perhaps hundreds – of Native languages have disappeared since Europeans arrived in North America, according to the center, but others persist despite 150 years of boarding schools that removed students from their home communities, and other efforts at forced assimilation.
“These languages have survived through centuries, even despite efforts to extinguish them primarily through education policies of the federal government,” Sims said.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, has said her department intends to release a report this month on its investigation into past federal oversight of boarding schools.
Pecos, the former Cochiti governor, described growing up speaking Keres, only to be forbidden from using it on school grounds when he began classes in the 1950s.
He attended a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs school in the heart of the pueblo, not a boarding school. A barbed wire fence defined the campus boundaries.
Some students who attended day or boarding schools, Pecos said, subsequently opted against teaching their children the language “to protect them from what they experienced” in classrooms.
“You internalize self-hatred about who you were or who you are,” Pecos said.
About 60% of the 1,200 members of the Pueblo de Cochiti are fluent in Keres, Quintana said, a figure the pueblo is working to boost by immersing some youngsters in the language.
New Mexico still struggles to teach Native American students. In a landmark 2018 decision, a state judge ruled the state had violated the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.
The court found Native American students and English language learners, for example, lacked full access to dual-language programs and that schools failed to provide culturally appropriate books and instructional materials, as required by law.
In 608 pages of findings, Pro Tem Judge Sarah Singleton said in 2018 that Native American students in New Mexico had worse academic outcomes than other ethnic groups despite the state’s awareness of their unique needs.
Native students in the state, she said, “share a legacy of historical trauma and a set of well-recognized, but chronically unmet, educational needs.”
The judge, who died in 2019, also highlighted the state’s failure to collaborate formally with tribes.
The new state law boosting the pay of Indigenous language teachers is part of a strategy to change that. It’s one component of a broader “Tribal Remedy Framework” endorsed by the leadership of tribal governments to address the educational needs of Native American students.
This year’s pay legislation sets a new minimum salary for full-time teachers certified by their tribe, nation or pueblo to teach their language and culture, expanding a similar program already underway in Bernalillo Public Schools.
Their pay will have to match or exceed the minimum salary for educators holding a Level 1 license, or about $50,000 a year, starting in July.
Until now, some of the language teachers have been paid in line with educational assistants, making less than half the new minimum. Base salaries for Indigenous language teachers at one district, for example, ranged from $18,300 a year to $45,500.
The higher salaries are expected to cost the state from $600,000 to $4 million next year – a wide range that reflects uncertainty over how many teachers the new pay might attract. The state budget going into effect in July includes $1.25 million to fund the pay increases.
Just 99 teachers employed this year hold the certificate allowing them to teach a Native American language, according to state documents. But there may be as many as 280 teachers who hold the certificate, but are not active in the classroom.
Public schools in the state offer bilingual programs in seven Indigenous languages.
The pay measure, House Bill 60, was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo and adopted without a dissenting vote.
Passage of the bill, Lente said, is a “huge step in ratifying the notion that Indigenous languages that predate New Mexico and predate this nation will be sustained and be taught by our own people, in the ways we know to have been successful.”
Even before the new law was proposed, Bernalillo Public Schools moved to equalize the pay of pueblo language teachers, bringing their salary in line with Level 1 teachers.
Superintendent Matthew Montaño said the district made the change in August last year to help ensure the language instructors are recognized “for the professional work they do.”
But not everyone, he said, was pleased with the policy. Opponents note that Native American language teachers aren’t required to have a four-year degree.
Instead, they hold a certificate from a tribal government authorizing them to teach the language and culture. The tribe determines who is qualified.
“They have a lifetime of experience – of learning that’s unique to what they’re trying to accomplish,” Montaño said.
Within Bernalillo Public Schools, four pueblos – Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Santa Ana – have authorized language teachers.
Sims, the UNM professor, said proficiency in a Native American language and culture cannot be obtained through a college degree.
Expanding the new salary scale statewide, Sims said, “opens the door for more tribal community people who know these languages, and are willing to step up and provide that instruction.”
About 11% of New Mexico’s public school students are Native American, compared with only 3% of teachers, according to legislative documents.
Native American students “would be lucky if they had a Native teacher anywhere in their academic career with those kinds of numbers,” Sims said.
The revival of Indigenous languages is also happening outside the classroom.
Brenda McKenna, a Democratic state senator from Corrales and member of Nambé Pueblo, has been working with her mother and linguists at UNM to build a dictionary of sorts to record the pueblo’s language: Nanbé’ Tewa.
(McKenna said the pueblo’s name also should be spelled with an “n” rather than an “m.” It’s spelled both ways in correspondence.)
The book, in any case, will have translations from Nanbé’ Tewa to English, and vice versa, along with sections on grammar and greetings. She expects it to eventually exceed 1,000 pages.
“There’s no other group in the world working on this dialect,” McKenna said. “We’re it.”
The group meets about once a week to go word by word through the dictionary.
The work includes verifying with McKenna’s mom, Cora O. McKenna, how each word is pronounced and its meanings. The group also has audio recordings.
The book, McKenna said, is similar to a dictionary published in 1982 on the Ohkay Owingeh Tewa language. Six pueblos in the state speak a dialect of Tewa.
The book is intended, she said, to ensure something is written down as fewer people pass the language on through the oral tradition.
McKenna said her mom, now 82, faced punishment during her time at a boarding school in Santa Fe.
“It was their way of beating the language out of the kids,” McKenna said. “My mom got reprimanded and sent on additional cleaning duty when she spoke to fellow Tewa speakers.”
Hearing the language of her heritage now, McKenna said, is “calming, spiritual and grounding.”
Pueblo leaders in New Mexico say approval of the salary boost for Indigenous language teachers is a welcome development.
But it is just one step among many advocated by a coalition of Native American leaders.
They are asking the Legislature to respond to the 2018 court ruling by granting tribes more control over the schooling of Native American children; investing in tribal libraries and other community education centers; and expanding Indigenous language programs and the number of Native teachers.
Pecos, the former Cochiti governor, said the framework would ensure more culturally relevant curriculum for Native American students, which would have ripple effects boosting academic achievement, reducing youth suicide and addressing health disparities. It would, he said, ensure Native students’ language and culture are treated as assets, not liabilities.
Nevertheless, this year’s salary legislation, Pecos said, is an important step.
“It’s about cultural survival,” Pecos said. “It’s about redefining education, where language is at the heart of this redefined education for the first time in over 130 years.”
Sims, the professor at UNM’s College of Education and Human Sciences, said some promising developments have emerged over the past six years, including Towa- and Keres-language immersion programs for young students at Jemez and Cochiti pueblos.
“I think a lot of people don’t fully recognize how invaluable – how these languages are an existential part of our cultural survival,” she said.
“Many people probably would say, ‘Just put it on a computer,'” Sims said, but “the existence of these languages is much deeper than that.”
Quintana, the Cochiti governor, said the pueblo will never write its language down. The tribe’s dialect of Keres is passed down only through oral stories, incorporated into songs, dances and prayers.
The importance of the language is difficult to express in English, Quintana said, but it connects community members to the land, provides a sense of belonging and promotes gratitude for their blessings.
For the record
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the language at an immersion program at Jemez Pueblo. It’s Towa, not Tewa.
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