WINDOW ROCK—Political leaders, educators, school board members, Navajo code talkers and concerned citizens gathered at the Education Center in Window Rock on Monday, June 26 to mobilize opposition to an English-only initiative that appears to be headed for the ballot in November. If passed, “English Language Education for Children in Public Schools,” would essentially eliminate bilingual education and instruction in Native American languages in Arizona’s public schools.
Navajo Nation Vice President, Dr. Taylor McKenzie, shared his experiences with English-only school programs, and said that land, culture and language were essential for Navajo identity. McKenzie said he plans to work with Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begay to develop an Executive Order that will support an earlier resolution passed by the Navajo Nation Council and reaffirm the Navajo Nation’s opposition to the initiative. “We cannot allow our language to be forbidden,” McKenzie said.
Former Navajo Nation President, Peterson Zah, urged Navajos to attend meetings to become informed on the issue.
Zah, who is now serving as an advisor to the president of Arizona State University, said that many well-intentioned Anglos observe immigrant workers in menial jobs all around the Phoenix Valley. They see these people in dead end jobs and jump to the conclusion that it is their lack of English that is holding them back. This sort of an initiative looks good to them. They want an easy solution to a complicated situation, Zah explained.
“We know that our language and culture are good and need to be preserved,” Zah said, “but there are things happening off the reservation that impact our lives.”
Zah described the people pushing this initiative as “very smart.” “They have learned well from their battles with bilingual education in the past.” He said there were also those with their own “political agendas” who are trying to get everyone into the mainstream.
“Navajos must study the issues and become involved in the political process,” Zah said. “If they do not like this initiative they can organize and express themselves with their votes.”
James Crawford, author of the book Hold Your Tongue which depicts English Only activities across the nation, discussed the initiative with the audience and urged them to study the fine print and read between the lines.
Crawford was invited to Arizona by the Tucson-based, Arizona Language Education Council (ALEC). He had been visiting communities around the state before arriving in Window Rock.
“On this surface this sort of thing sounds great,” said Crawford. “The signature gatherers have been to Window Rock and some Navajos have signed their petitions without examining the fine print.”
“Everyone wants English for their children but there are some children who hear nothing but noise when English-only is spoken. Some students need assistance in their native tongue so that they can catch up with the others in their classes.”
The initiative would restrict instruction in primary languages and rush students into classrooms where they would be exposed to no other
instructional strategies but English-only.
The initiative would provide sheltered English imersion, for the English language learners, for one year. “Then the students would be tossed into English language classes where they would have to “sink or swim,” Crawford said. “The one year of English immersion would be nothing more than some Sesame Street English,” Crawford added. “They would not be able to study any of the other subjects during that time.”
While the initiative appears to be an “immigrant issue,” aimed at Spanish-speaking immigrants Native American language instruction would also be affected by the proposal, Crawford said
Navajo code talkers, Teddy Draper and Jimmy Begay, expressed dismay by the initiative. “When we started school in 1929,” Draper said, “we were forbidden to speak Navajo. But, when the government got in trouble with Japan in 1942, they called on us to use our language to help win the war.”
Retired school administrator, Marjorie “Grandma” Thomas, also expressed her frustrations with the initiative. “They took our land and our livestock. Now they want our culture and language too, “ she said.