Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
PUEBLO DE COCHITI – Inside a portable building, a handful of children sit in a semicircle as their teacher holds up four fingers while explaining the connection between Easter and traditional spring dances.
The lesson plays out entirely in the dialect of Keres, spoken only by members of their pueblo.
It’s a promising model, tribal leaders and others say, for the revival of Indigenous languages threatened with extinction.
The Keres Children’s Learning Center lies in the heart of the Pueblo de Cochiti, serving 14 students of mixed ages in early childhood and elementary classrooms. The oldest – a 12-year-old boy – serves as an informal mentor and example to the younger children.
The small school began classes about 10 years ago after Trisha Moquin
o, then a public school teacher, decided the language instruction her students received – just 45 minutes a day of Keres – wasn’t enough to fully revitalize the language.
“I think it came down to the question of, ‘Would I put my daughter in my own classroom?’ My answer was ‘no,’ ” Moquino said in an interview.
She left the elementary school and helped found the learning center based on the Montessori model, allowing early childhood students to be immersed in Keres. The school also has a dual-language elementary classroom in Keres and English.
The center’s work, tribal leaders say, reflects the Pueblo de Cochiti’s own values and culture – an abrupt contrast to the discrimination Native American students endured through efforts at forced assimilation.
Pueblo de Cochiti Gov. Phillip Quintana said it’s heartening to see students learning in the language he was forbidden to speak at school as a child in the 1960s.
“When you see how intelligent, how smart those kids are to grasp it so quickly,” Quintana said, “I just know there’s a future for us, from these kids learning our language.”
On a recent morning, children sat on the classroom floor around Bernard Suina, a cultural language teacher.
He held an object in the shape of a cross and gestured sometimes with his left hand as he and the students appeared to trade questions and responses in Keres. The lesson, Moquino explained later, covered the pueblo’s traditional calendar and the way it celebrates Easter through spring dances.
Moquino said she doesn’t dispute the need for kids to learn and speak English, but the learning center elevates the prestige of Keres by making it the language of the classroom. It also, she said, influences the way the students behave.
“Our language naturally perpetuates the value of being a community,” Moquino said, “not just thinking of one’s self.”
The Keres Children’s Learning Center is a nonprofit school funded largely by private charitable foundations, in addition to a federal Esther Martinez language immersion grant, named after the late Tewa language preservationist and linguist from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.
The school operates out of a 20-year-old portable building inside the Pueblo de Cochiti, a 40-minute drive southwest of Santa Fe.
Its supporters are seeking about $6 million in funding – through grants and donations – to construct a building that would allow for an expansion to serve infants, toddlers and older adolescents.
“Our children really deserve this facility we believe,” Curtis Chavez, the center’s director of development, said in an interview.
Christine Sims, a University of New Mexico professor with expertise in educational linguistics and American Indian education, describes the Keres center as “a promising model for how we could support the development of Native languages very early on.”
A similar immersion program, she said, is underway for some students at Jemez Pueblo.
“To appreciate the uniqueness of these languages that exist in New Mexico,” Sims said, “is something that our state should recognize, and certainly our Legislature should understand, more fully. We’re one of very few states in the United States where these languages still exist.”
In fact, New Mexico is the only place that some languages are spoken.
State Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said the Keres Children’s Learning Center is a fantastic example of what could be done at other pueblos, many of which already offer less formal language instruction for youngsters.
His own 2-year-old son, he said, now comes back from day care at Sandia Pueblo recognizing and repeating words in Tiwa, the language of the pueblo.
It’s vital, Lente said, for “our language and culture to be taught by our own people, to our own people.”