Acknowledging the long and troubled history of the United States government policy toward tribal languages, Attorney General Janet Napolitano said Thursday that Proposition 203, the so-called English Only initiative, will not apply to Native American language instruction.
The voter-approved measure prohibited bilingual instruction in an effort “to provide all of Arizona’s children, regardless of their ethnicity or national origins, with the skills necessary to become productive members of our society,” and listed English literacy as one of those skills. The measure stirred up the flames of controversy across the state, uniting Native American leaders and tribal members in opposition to the measure.
Native American languages are protected under the the Native American Languages Act (NALA) of 1990, which found that preservation of the language is critical to the preservation of culture. In that act, Congress also found that “acts of suppression and extermination directed against Native American languages and culture are in conflict with the United States policy of self-determination for Native Americans.”
Citing NALA, Napolitano stated that federal and tribal schools will not be subject to Proposition 203, and that “although state public schools are generally subject to Proposition 203, they must comply...in a manner that is consistent with the federal law protecting Native American language rights....including principles of tribal sovereignty and the federally-recognized right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages.
“Proposition 203 cannot prohibit a State public school located on the Reservation or elsewhere from teaching students Native American language and culture,” she wrote.
According to the opinion, State public schools can offer classes in Native American language and culture to all students, regardless of their level of English ability.
Sen. Jack Jackson (D-Window Rock) requested the opinion on behalf of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice shortly after the November election. “We are very, very happy,” said Jackson,” although we do need to study this a little further.” Jackson said that no programs in reservation schools have been changed due to the initiative, and that schools may now continue with their programs.
“It’s a victory, very much a victory for the Indian people. I’m just sorry that I can’t say the same for my friends in the Hispanic community.” Jackson said that the opinion was also a result of so many concerned individuals banding together to fight the initiative. “It was a challenge. We banded together and opposed the proposition with unity and with prayers.” While Jackson specifically asked for an opinion regarding the Navajo Nation, Napolitano’s answer affects all Indian nations in Arizona, he said. And with the current trend toward English-Only legislation throughout the country, this decision has far reaching effects, setting a precedent for all of Indian Country.
“Our language is a very important part of education. For so many years we have only been exposed to the male portion, but we need the female too—our character teachings, which teach us to be better, decent people. Our culture and our way of life is our relationship with the universe and we must have our language to preserve that way of life. There are some things that just cannot be taught in English,” he said.