• by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., with Della Warrior, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2013 •
Language is a primary way we engage students, reinforcing their identity, history and unique culture. It’s a way for children to express themselves and connect with others. IDRA’s Semillitas project, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, responds to the need for educational equity by providing bilingual, culturally and linguistically relevant early childhood materials for children and families, supporting community partnerships and providing technical assistance to educators. Semillitas helps children and English learners prepare for success by third grade in Texas. IDRA also is collaborating with Native American tribes in Oklahoma in supporting language preservation by translating and creating children’s books for learning key concepts.
Della Warrior, director, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museums of New Mexico, added: “The books, once completed, will be a really valuable learning tool for the young children of each tribe and will help preserve and foster language continuation. It is very exciting! It is important to remember that it has been only recently that some tribes have begun developing written languages. Some are struggling to develop orthographies and dictionaries. So the work we are doing is very important in helping them retrieve, revive and retain their respective languages.”
It has been said that a people without knowledge of their language is like a tree without roots – it often cannot sustain itself. The bilingual English-Spanish Semillitas de Aprendizaje little books are a collection of key concepts, numbers, and shapes to help children master key skills as stepping stones for later learning. The new translations are a labor of love, often a community effort not without challenges, especially for languages that are on the verge of extinction. Few people remain in the tribes who speak the language, and when someone is identified to translate, the languages often lack a dictionary or orthography, resulting in discussions on the proper pronunciation, definition, spelling, gender, etc., for each word.
The Otoe-Missouria language in use today is a merging of two separate languages into one that is a combination of both tribal languages. Fortunately, the language is being preserved through classes taught by Sky Campbell, B.A., language director, a non-Otoe-Missouria, who has learned the language. Campbell is assisted by tribal elders in teaching the language and ensuring accuracy.
IDRA is exploring collaboration with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe in northern Oklahoma, the Ponca Tribe, and the Pawnee Nation, located in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Because of prior government policies of acculturation, the languages of many tribes are at-risk of becoming extinct. Hundreds of native languages have already been lost, and several people are struggling to learn their language from recordings made by anthropologists in the early 1900s. These tribes in northern Oklahoma are no exception and may have fewer than 10 people who speak the language fluently.
This effort will have a significant impact on language survival as well as cultural identity. Within her own lifetime, Warrior has observed language loss in two generations. “The little math books and stories are going to be great assets in helping the tribes revive their languages,” Warrior explained. “If the little ones can learn the language, then the language will have a chance of surviving. Along with the language, of course, is the culture. Learning their language will help develop the student’s pride in their own identity as a tribal person.”
A storybook is planned as well, comprised of original legends shared through the oral tradition, illustrated by a local artist, to include legends that have special significance for the tribe. For example, one story tells of often long periods without food, especially in the winter. Another references tobacco, since it is important for young learners to know that tobacco was used for religious purposes, prayer and ceremonies. Another tells a tale about a turtle counting “coup,” which was a part of tradition with tribes of the Plains cultures.
The Otoe-Missouria people have lived in Red Rock, Oklahoma, since 1881. They were forcibly moved to their current location from a government reservation on the Big Blue River where they had been confined since 1855. Traditionally, they were hunters and gatherers, and it was difficult when they were put on a reservation because they could not go on buffalo hunts. Originally, the Otoe and Missouria were two separate tribes and part of a group including the Winnebago and Iowa Tribes that lived in the Great Lakes Region. The state of Nebraska gets its name from the Otoe-Missouria words for “water flat” referring to the Platt River. These words are “Ni Brathge” (nee Brahth-gay). Both the State of Missouri and the Missouri River are named after the Missouria Tribe. The Otoe and Missouria tribes were the first encountered by Lewis and Clark in their exploration expedition.
The tribe now has a little over 3,000 members. Among these, an estimated 5 percent can speak the Otoe-Missouria language at some level. It is believed that only three members are fully fluent in the language of today. The tribe has established a language department and is striving to preserve their language through an early childhood education program and language classes. “The Semillitas de Aprendizaje books are very much needed materials and will be a great asset toward teaching the children their language and preserving the language,” stated Warrior.
Research is abundantly clear on the benefits of bilingual education, especially now that we are becoming a “Nation of Polyglots” (Joseph Berger, 2007). Most nations value multiple languages for their inherent value. In fact, it is the norm in many nations for children to speak more than one and often several languages.
Language is not only an expression of culture, it is culture. We are at an important juncture in our history as a nation. As our global society expands, we have the choice to co-create a better future for our children by ensuring equity in education as a core value that will help transform our world. That choice helps us to become all that we can be as a people through honoring and celebrating our diversity of languages, history and culture. It enables our children to fully embrace our multicultural and multilingual society, and calls upon us to provide full support for all learners, particularly those young and most vulnerable. It is a logical choice that reflects that we can never be less than that which we have already become. As we sort through sound educational choices for the future, the question to consider becomes what kind of world do we want our children to inherit? Hopefully, it is a world where diversity of languages unites rather than divides us, and where full engagement of families, educators and communities will ensure equity, access and excellence in education for all children.
More information about IDRA’s Semillitas de Aprendizaje materials and professional development support in the use of the materials is online at http://www.idra.org/Quality_Early_Education/Semillitas/.
Berger, J. “Building a Nation of Polyglots, Starting with the Very Young,” New York Times (November 14, 2007).
García, J., & R. Rodríguez. “Using Semillitas de Aprendizaje in the Early Childhood Classroom,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2011).
Galinsky, E. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs (New York: Harper Collins Books, 2010).
Otoe-Missouria Tribe. Otoe & Missouria: Five Hundred Years of History, website (Red Rock, Okla.: Otoe-Missouria Tribe, no date) www.omtribe.org.
Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is director of development at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Della Warrior, M.Ed., director, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museums of New Mexico.
[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]