Hopi educators inject new life into language

S.J. Wilson/Observer
Anita Poleahla, left, Robert Breunig, Ferrell Secakuku and William Mitchell share a laugh after the presentation. Breunig is the director of the Museum of Northern Arizona. Mitchell was SecakukuÕs high school teacher at Ganado Mission High School and came to the presentation to honor his one-time studentÕs work with Poleahla in preserving the Hopi language.

S.J. Wilson/Observer Anita Poleahla, left, Robert Breunig, Ferrell Secakuku and William Mitchell share a laugh after the presentation. Breunig is the director of the Museum of Northern Arizona. Mitchell was SecakukuÕs high school teacher at Ganado Mission High School and came to the presentation to honor his one-time studentÕs work with Poleahla in preserving the Hopi language.

SEDONA -- Anita Poleahla has been involved in Hopi language curriculum for the tribe for 10 years. Ferrell Secakuku, a former tribal chairman, now describes himself as a traditional man and Hopi farmer. The pair joined forces several years ago to bring Hopi language back into Hopi households, and as a result have produced two CDs of songs and two presentations illustrated with slideshow photographs of scenes from Hopi life.

The results of a survey conducted about three years ago revealed that 30 to 40 percent of Hopi children cannot speak or understand their language and that only 20 percent of children are fluent speakers. This came to no surprise to Poleahla or Secakuku because there has a steady decline in the language over the past 20 to 30 years -- nonetheless it was a wakeup call that someone had to do something.

That something had to be unique and appealing to youth -- and Poleahla and Secakuku's endeavor combined song, puppets, visual images and modern media devices.

Their efforts were introduced at the Church of the Red Rocks in Sedona on the evening of April 10 as part of the 2006 Sedona Lecture Series. The event was hosted by the Sedona Muses and the Museum of Northern Arizona. Museum Director Robert Breunig was on hand to introduce the pair.

"We realized we had to do something," Secakuku said. "Our mandate as Hopi people is that our language. If we forget our language, we are no longer Hopi."

The Hopi are a visual people, according to Secakuku -- an accomplished songwriter.

"We asked ourselves, 'why can't we be original?' Singing is a way of painting a picture -- all of the chants in Hopi tell stories."

If an individual cannot understand the words in the songs, they cannot appreciate them, according to Secakuku. Songs, he said, put heart in the Hopi culture.

One song used by the pair follows the tune of "Old MacDonald," but had to be adapted to relate to Hopi children.

"We didn't have farms like that, or the animals, so we had to write about animals that Hopi youth grew up with," Secakuku said.

So his songs feature animals like the chipmunk and the frog.

"It used to rain a lot when I was little, and we would see a lot of frogs," Secakuku said. "I used to think the frogs came down with the rain. I asked my father about it, and he said yes, it rains frogs."

What he didn't realize as a child was that the frogs hibernate beneath the ground until rain falls.

"I used to watch them play around, and they would make a lot of noise," Secakuku said.

Inviting members of the audience to "be a kid tonight," Poleahla and Secakuku launched into a rhythmic song about frogs -- 'paukwa'--each gesturing with frog puppets.

Another childhood memory inspired Secakuku to write a song about chipmunks.

"About 20 steps behind my house, there was a big cliff," Secakuku said. "I used to sit at the edge of the cliff and see chipmunks playing at the edge. Indigenous animals make a contribution to life. When we learn our religion, we know animals have a contribution in our lives."

As they sang, Secakuku skillfully choreographed a chipmunk puppet cavorting across the painted "stage" of a mesa.

"I didn't appreciate the message of the chipmunk until I was older," Secakuku explained. "They taught me to be happy."

Another song -- illustrated with slide show pictures of a young Hopi girl--spoke of a "dance" into womanhood through good healthy food.

"I grew up, I am dancing for all of you. I learned this so I dance for you," the presentation's text read. I am made of Hopi foods." These foods include corn cake, blue corn tortillas, corn silk, blue corn flour balls, and 'somoviki' -- a sweet corn mush encased in cornhusks.

Secakuku described the process a young Hopi girl goes through -- beginning with the placement in a dark room by an aunt for four days--and ending with her emergence with the hairstyle of a young woman available for marriage and a platter of food that she takes home to her family.

This explanation preceded the presentation of a slide show CD presentation showing images of a Hopi girl entering the world of womanhood.

In response to questions about the Hopi written language, Poleahla explained the process of setting the Hopi language into three different dictionaries -- and how her teaching allows for the four Hopi dialects.

"We adopted a writing system that includes the German umlaut "o" and a glottal stop, that was easily adaptable to our four dialects," Poleahla said. "There are also absences of characters in different dialects."

An example is where one dialect uses a "p" sound while another uses a "v" sound.

"I wrote the curriculum in Third Mesa dialect," Poleahla explained. "We begin with learning the alphabet, stressing that each student remember his or her dialect. I explain to each speaker what he or she would change with their dialect, then everyone starts reading. By [the class entitled] Hopi III, I see that they can modify words to accompany their dialect. I am thrilled to see that they are able to speak in their own dialects."

Poleahla also pointed out that when they sing together, she and Secakuku sing in their own dialects -- and that this explained where people heard a difference in their pronunciation in singing.

Secakuku compared his and Poleahla's efforts to the clown that appears in Hopi dances -- that if he makes one person laugh, he has done his job.

"If we can teach one child to speak Hopi, we are successful," Secakuku explained.

Secakuku corrected a commonly held assumption about the decline of the Hopi language -- that people didn't care to pass on the language.

"We were sent away from home for our education," Secakuku said. "People of different tribes came together and people fell in love, and because they only knew their own languages, English became the common language in the home. Their children grew up speaking English."

Secakuku commended the establishment of Hopi High School, saying that it was no longer necessary to send Hopi children away for education.

"The songs are repetitious," Secakuku explained. "That is the best way to teach Hopi. Students can see the picture, and hear the words. By the third week our students could sing the song. When we hear Hopi High School students speaking Hopi, we feel that we've made a contribution."

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