Native Americans march against English-only initiative

PHOENIX—”Mr. Unz, go home—and take Proposition 203 with you!” exclaimed Salt River Pima-Maricopa President Ivan Makil, speaking at an October 13 rally opposing Proposition 203, the “English-Only” initiative slated for the November 7 ballot.

This initiative would end bilingual education programs in Arizona public schools. Many tribes fear that their efforts to preserve Arizona’s 17 native languages would be imperiled by the initiative’s passage.

“This is an issue of all cultures,” added Makil.

The message Makil, Navajo Code Talkers, educators and an army of marchers, including many Navajo Elders, spoke was clear: Indians adamantly oppose Prop. 203. The incongruous sight of tiny Navajo grandmothers, bedecked in their velvet and turquoise, flanked by burly Apaches and Pimas, as well as Maricopas, Hopis, Yavapais, Yaquis, and a host of other tribes, turned heads in downtown Phoenix as the marchers made their way under a crisp blue sky.

Phoenix police later estimated that 500-750 people marched down Washington street to the rally at the State Capitol.

State Senators Jack Jackson (D-Window Rock) and Joe Eddie Lopez (D-Phoenix) spearheaded the march. Jackson noted that “English-only” education has failed since its imposition on the Navajo Nation over 130 years ago. “Our bilingual education in our school system teaches self-identity, self-responsibility and spirituality. It helps teach character.”

Code Talker Sam Billison spoke of the contribution he and his fellow 400 Navajos made to the United States during World War II. “If not for Code Talkers, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.We did this to preserve the right to live under a democratic government.

“The Holy People gave us this language, only they can take it away,” Billison said, while backed by other Code Talkers.

Former Navajo President Peterson Zah, now teaching education at Arizona State University asked, “Why am I producing teachers if they’re going to be limited to English only in the classroom?” Zah noted that teachers can be punished with jail time for using other languages under the initiative’s provisions. “How arrogant to suggest that one language is better, over the other,” stated Zah.

Makil, Zah, Navajo President Kelsey Begaye, Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor Jr., White Mountain Apache Council Member Phoebe Nez, and Fort McDowell Yavapai President Clinton Pattea all started their speeches with their native languages.

Taylor harshly criticized the proposition, calling it a “racist assault.” Taylor also said that language and cultural instruction is an issue of “basic human rights.” The Hopi Tribe passed a resolution opposing the initiative last week, joining Navajo, Tohono O’odham, and Salt River tribes.

All the tribal leaders present at the rally, including former Gila River Governor Mary Thomas, urged the crowd to vote no on Prop. 203.

Another featured speaker: Marjorie Thomas, Navajo educator and language activist. Thomas helped arrange for the large contingent of Navajo Elders to attend the march. The diminutive Thomas cried to the enthusiastic audience that if the initiative passes, she will never speak English again, in defiance of the law.

Other communities rallied to support Native American communities. Students from predominately Hispanic Valley View Elementary School in Phoenix, led by principal John Wann, brought signs and essays to lend support to the effort.

Alejandra Sotomayor, head of the Arizona Language Education Council, limped along the route leaning on a cane. Sotomayor noted that in Tucson, a comprehensive bilingual education program reduced Hispanic dropout rates from 17 percent to 6.9 percent, and Native American dropouts from 19 percent to 7.6 percent. “Why would we want to give up programs that work?” Sotomayor asked.

The most eloquent statements came from the ordinary people who took time out from work, school and family to march and loudly cheer the speeches. Frances Alcantar, Potawotami/Oglala Sioux, ditched school to bring her four-year-old niece Rebecca Novarro to the rally. Alcantar said that children should not be stopped from learning their traditional language.

When asked about a statement “English for the Children” head Maria Mendoza gave to the Arizona Republic, claiming that Native Americans should not let themselves be “trapped” by their native languages, Alcantar bristled, crying, “We’re not trapped by our language!”

Marie Kaye, Navajo, who traveled from Gallup with two other elders to support the rally, said of the initiative, “I think it’s wrong. We’re trying to get teachers to teach Navajo. If they don’t pass [the language] on, it’ll be lost completely.” Kaye doesn’t feel trapped by her language, either. “That’s how [non-Indians] view Indian people.”

A frequently-heard refrain from the marchers echoed Makil’s statements that Prop. 203 financier Ron Unz has no traditional cultural foundation, while others questioned why Unz, a California resident, is involved in Arizona politics.

A shirt worn by a marcher, though, had the last word. It stated in Navajo and English, “Two languages are better than one.”

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