Will federal laws protect Native Americans from the “English-Only” <br>initiative?
With less than a week to go before the election, serious questions remain over the affect Proposition 203, the so-called English-Only initiative, will have on Native American instruction.
Spearheaded by Ron Unz, a California software magnate, Proposition 203 “requires that all public school instruction be held in English, and that “children not fluent in English shall...be placed in an intensive, one-year immersion program.”
Opponents and proponents of Proposition 203, meeting ASU’s Armstrong Hall on October 25 for a public debate, were asked numerous questions about 203, including concerns about how it will be handled in regard to Native American tribes.
“What about Indians?” one audience member asked. “The initiative talks about immigrants, but we Indians aren’t immigrants.”
Unz pointed out that under the California English-only law, Prop. 227, tribes are exempt due to a “gentlemen’s agreement” they reached with the state.
More notably, Native languages are protected under Federal law. According to United States Code, Title 25, Chapter 31, Section 2904: “The right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs.”
Seemingly, this would protect Native Americans from propositions like 203. But the language used in 203 is problematic. Prop. 203 states that it must be implemented “regardless of ethnicity.” And under another Arizona law, the Voter Protection Act of 1998, when the majority of voters approves an initiative or proposition, the Arizona Legislature cannot change or alter it.
Sal Gabaldon, a curriculum specialist at the Bilingual Education Center against 203, pointed out that 21 tribes oppose the measure. He indicated that where the tribes were concerned, 203 was not well thought-out.
Some tribal leaders don’t want to take any chances. They would like a clarification of this issue before the election.
And Unz has agreed to do so, on one condition. According to the press offices of the Navajo and Hopi nations, Unz has stated that “the leadership of Prop. 203 would be willing to support formal clarification of the legally disputed issues in return for tribal support for the measure as a whole.
“Unfortunately, the tribal leaders have not responded to my repeated overtures. If the tribal leaders continue with this very negative attitude, the Prop. 203 leadership may be far less willing to work with them after the election, and I hope that they realize this important fact.”
But both Monica Nuvamsa, staff assistant to Chairman Taylor and Merle Pete, Navajo Nation Press Officer, say that Unz has not been in contact with their offices.
See English-Only, page 2
“The Hopi Tribe is disappointed to hear him make such a statement that he will be less willing to work with the tribes,” said Nuvamsa. “We don’t really think he has made an effort up to this point.”
Said Pete, “If the proposition passes, we will be happy to negotiate if a legitimate medium is established, but we would be willing to meet with the state of Arizona at that point and not with the leaders of the initiative.
Pete said that Navajo Nation feels that Unz will have little control over the proposition after it passes.
Both the tribes feel that the proposition will adversely affect their language and their culture, and may adversely affect success rates among their students. Others, like Margaret Garcia-Dugan, Principal, Glendale High School, believe that “English is the language of science, commerce.”
Garcia-Dugan told the crowd that she couldn’t have achieved what she has unless she spoke English well. English, she said, is the language of opportunity, and kids need it to prosper economically.
But Marjorie “Grandma” Thomas, Navajo educator and activist, adamantly disagrees. “Money’s not all there is in life!”
Indeed, many believe that language and culture are inextricably linked. Says Rosalie Talahongva-Adams, Hopi,: “The Kachinas don’t speak English—they only speak Hopi.”