Native Voices vs. Virus

Native languages face new threat from COVID-19, but Indigenous programs adapt

Cora McKenna has kept her heritage language, Nambé Tewa, close to her. Through decades of political and cultural change, along with years of punishment for speaking it at the Santa Fe Indian School, she kept her language in her mind and heart, even if she couldn't speak it out loud.

Finally, the public school district immersed her in English as her third language, after Spanish and Tewa.

Though multiple institutions tried and failed to take her Native tongue away, McKenna, who is now 80 years old, and her daughter, Brenda, 53, began a language revitalization program at Nambé Pueblo in 2002. Their hopes of creating a Nambé Tewa dictionary and teaching more Indigenous people the language are still in the works. It's slow going because money is tight and volunteers have much work ahead, including creating educational protocols, putting word to page and more.

Now another obstacle has appeared for the unique dialect of Tewa that has roughly 30 fluent speakers left: the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Mexico's shelter-in-place orders intended to stop the spread have had numerous other consequences. The virus stopped in-person language revitalization classes in their tracks and has forced other programs to up their technology games in an effort to save the languages, many of which are labeled various levels of endangered by UNESCO. 

For example, although in-person classes at Nambé are canceled for the foreseeable future, the pueblo's efforts to document the language have taken on even more importance as COVID-19 moves across the country, taking many of the lives of the elderly people it infects.

"When my mom is gone, when I'm gone and all the other native speakers are gone that are living today, we want to make sure that there's something left for the ones that are toddlers and the ones that are to come behind us," Brenda says. "Ideally, it would be great if Nambé Tewa was still orally passed down. But that's not happening, and so we really did all this documentation out of the crisis that we recognized and the crisis of Indigenous language loss is a worldwide one."

Native elders dying and the technology tribes are able to set up and utilize before that happens takes on a new meaning. McKenna is worried for herself, her language and her family and friends as COVID-19 sweeps through Native lands.

"It's very scary because there's not too many of us left and we all have all kinds of health issues," McKenna says. "We're more vulnerable to it. I get a very scary feeling on it because if we all go… [we're] being erased."

It's a valid fear: Nearly 42% of New Mexicans who have been infected are Native people, according to the state's Department of Health.

COVID-19 forces reimagining with technology

Albuquerque Public Schools' 156 Native language students have been able to continue their Navajo and Zuni language classes from home thanks to technology.

APS Indian Education Senior Director Daisy Thompson, a member of the Navajo Nation, who speaks to SFR via telephone, says the district is "very fortunate" because officials purchased the latest Diné language teaching software, called The Navajo Language Renaissance, only a year ago.

"Our students are able to access that from their homes," Thompson says. "It's an online course and there's built-in assessments. Two out of the three teachers were already using it with their students."

The Zuni language program does not have teaching software. But the instructors are calling each family to help set up Google Classrooms so they can get back to learning. School is often one of the only places where urban Indigenous kids are able to access native languages. Such a connection does more than teach them how to speak—it links to other aspects of their culture, too, according to Thompson.

Thompson spearheaded the APS Indian Education Department language program about a decade ago, beginning first with Diné and then adding Zuni four years ago. She applies for federal funding and has gradually added more teachers through the years.

Thompson's first language is Diné, and she started learning English in kindergarten. That's not the norm for most students in the district.

"With the urban students, we're finding that the only time that they are being exposed to the language is in their classroom," Thompson says. "Once they go home, there's no one at home, oftentimes, that speaks their language and I found that with some Zuni students, they will go back to the pueblo and participate in the various feasts or various events and practice their Zuni there with their elders…But in their home, they don't hear that a lot unless they have an elder or uncle or a grandpa or grandmother. That's our biggest challenge."

Anton Treuer, who has worked with both the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe and indirectly with other tribes around the state, made technology a major part of his heritage language revitalization efforts.

He is a second-language learner of Ojibwe and an Ojibwe professor at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, where linguists, Native speakers and scholars use online classrooms and have compiled written and audio databases of the language.

Treuer says some pueblos around New Mexico have been hesitant to employ technology or haven't had the funds to do so.

"Some language groups have been very reluctant to embrace modern technologies and [COVID-19 is] maybe stirring the pot a little bit and forcing some who've been late or slow adopters to take advantage of technology," Treuer says. "I think ultimately, unless we're going to go Amish, so to speak, and try to wall our languages and cultures off at a certain point in time, we have to embrace all of these technological things."

Software and apps are among the most powerful tools to overcoming distance and time, as well as the loss of elders. For example, in Minnesota, Treuer is helping a tribe that counts only 25 speakers of its dialect. Members are collaborating to create a Rosetta Stone program.

"A lot of the barriers for programs include overcoming time, where you have a small number of speakers and there's been a lot of damage to a language-speaking community, overcoming space because people are spread out, not everyone has a fluent speaker they can talk to every day," Treuer says. "Technology can do that."

But there are some things that technology can't do—especially if there isn't access to basic internet, which is a widespread problem across tribes in the Southwest. The US Census Bureau found in 2019 that New Mexico is one of the least connected states in the country, especially in the poorest counties, such as McKinley and Rio Arriba.

In those areas, using Zoom and Google Classroom is an impossibility.

"Especially when you're talking about the tribes here in New Mexico where they don't have broadband access, that kind of technology is not a very reliable source to use in many of our Native communities here," says Christine Sims, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma and University of New Mexico associate professor who directs the American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center. She and her team work all across the state and the Southwest helping tribes revitalize languages and plan programs.

Santa Fe Public Schools, despite having students across the county who represent around 110 different tribal nations, does not have a language revitalization program, though there has been talk about it off and on through the years, according to Nancy Davis, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa member who heads the district's Native American Student Services.

But there are major obstacles in the way for it to be offered in Santa Fe: funding and enough fluent, tribal-approved teachers to direct the classes, as well as basic logistics. Davis says the district is open to the idea and, "looking down the road," the distance learning that the pandemic forced on the country could be a catalyst for online language classes.

"With distance learning it could be an opportunity for, let's say, Cora McKenna or one of the teachers to say, 'Can we access all of our Nambé students and then they'll get on virtually from wherever they're at?'" Davis tells SFR. "Now that we're getting well versed in this and the kids are learning how to access Zoom and Google Hangout, maybe this would be an opportunity to revitalize the languages."

Over at the Santa Fe Indian School, Language Department Chair William Pacheco tells SFR its 150 to 200 students taking classes in Keres, Tewa and Diné will use Google Classroom and recordings sent by their teachers, as well as talking with their families and social media, for the last few weeks of the academic school year.

But he says many students, and even himself, have struggled to access the internet.

"Our primary role as language teachers during this time is to make sure students are using their languages at home and encouraging them to have their families speak in their languages since we'll be spending a lot of time at home," Pacheco says. "Teachers have been calling their students and engaging in one-on-one conversations."

Pacheco, a member of Santo Domingo Pueblo, says the history and knowledge of previous sicknesses brought to Native lands from colonizers is built into the language.

"We have lived through situations like these," Pacheco tells SFR. "[The students'] families encourage them to have a perspective that's not just in our lifetimes but our ancestors' lifetimes that have lived through many difficult times before. That's also in the language as well. We have words that talk about pandemics, sickness and things like that."

Race against time

Different dialects of the Tewa language are spoken by just six pueblos in New Mexico. Tewa is considered severely endangered by UNESCO because there are only roughly 1,200 speakers, and most of them are elderly. For languages such as this, time and now the pandemic are working against them.

In the way that history has a way of repeating itself, this disease appears to be hitting Native people in the Southwest particularly hard.

Of New Mexico's 2,072 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday night, the health department identifies 41.47% of those infected as Native—despite Native people making up just 10.9% of the state's overall population. That's compared to white people, who make up 19.87% of infections and 37.1% of the population.

The death toll is falling disproportionately on Native people as well. On the Navajo Nation, with a population of about 170,000, 45 people have died of the respiratory illness. In New Mexico, where more than 2 million people live, 58 deaths have been recorded. It's still unclear exactly why Native people are so hard hit by the virus.

"The older populations are definitely a smaller percentage of our population compared to middle age and much younger generations," Sims says. "As we lose elders, we also lose speakers and the cultural knowledge that they hold. It's really a race against time as to how much younger generations will be able to pick up in terms of language, but also then being able to acquire the things that come with that cultural knowledge. I like to call it cultural literacy. What is it that they learn in terms of the use of the languages within the settings of their homes and communities? That's what we stand to lose if we lose our elders."

Sims' efforts with the American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center have been temporarily put on hold because of the pandemic. The weeklong summer institute to teach roughly 40 Indigenous people how to better teach their heritage languages in schools is also canceled and their typical year round work out in the pueblos and tribes to help them revitalize their languages has come to a halt.

However, she says the center's work to help tribes with "language planning" is especially important in the harsh light of COVID-19. After restrictions are lifted, she sees the center's work in the coming years to be primarily focused on that.

Sims doesn't know when the summer institute to train more Indigenous language teachers will be rescheduled.

Other tribes are also facing community cultural cancellations. Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, whose members also speak Tewa, has canceled classes for the rest of the academic year.

Matthew J. Martinez , deputy director of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Ohkay Owingeh member and the grandson of celebrated language preservationist Esther Martinez, tells SFR their language is "a shared living entity that is connected to place."

"Without being out in our homelands with families and community members, our language and cultural understandings are compromised," Martinez says. "The Tewa instructor has assigned homework for students and parents. This has been an important step to continue language instruction; however, the reinforcement from a teacher and explanations are a challenge."

Other important cultural events for the pueblo, such as the end-of-the-year student powwow that combines dance with language, might be canceled because of COVID-19. The students normally spend the year making the ceremonial regalia they wear during the powwow.

"My Sa'yaa (grandmother) Esther Martinez, and all those who came before looked to the power of cultural traditions to get through challenging times," Martinez says. "Despite new viruses and existing health conditions, we are reminded to draw upon our cultural traditions as a way of survival for this generation and for those yet to come."

Both drawing upon cultural traditions and using technology is what Indigenous Language Institute Executive Director Inée Slaughter says will lead to the continued revitalization of New Mexico's languages. Using smartphones, apps, software and computers to record, listen and teach language are all crucial to making sure middle-aged to young tribal members are learning from the fluent elders.

"[Language revitalization is] really important in a larger perspective," Slaughter tells SFR. "We see the urgency as our fluent speakers are diminishing in number. There's an urgency to raise up new speakers very rapidly. Many communities have selected to teach the little ones and ILI is really excited about that and supports that but we also want to push the envelope to involve adults in the communities."

Why heritage languages matter

The ties between language and culture are inextricable, from religious ceremonies to daily life. Despite hundreds of years of colonialism, attempts at boarding schools to beat heritage languages out of Indigenous people and multiple epidemics brought to tribes from across the world, the original people of the Southwest have been able to hold onto their words.

From continuing to speak in her language behind the instructors' backs with the other Pueblo students at the Santa Fe Indian School decades ago to teaching her own children how to sing and count in Nambé Tewa, Cora McKenna says English never became her dominant language.

She and her daughter Brenda consider Nambé Tewa a living language—their dictionary will include new words for "computer" and "Post-it note." For McKenna, who still teaches Tewa part time, it's not just about speaking and teaching words. It's about as much equity as possible while still living in her colonized homeland.

"I think we should have a fair amount of a chance to learn our [language] and not be called foreigners," McKenna says from self-isolation in her home on the pueblo.

Sims, who is from the Pueblo of Acoma, thinks this time sheltering in place can still be used to cultivate language and culture, even with a lack of technology in many rural areas.

"Language helps build relationships," Sims says. "Program or no program or technology or no technology…I think that's one of the other key elements or aspects of revitalization is this idea of building relationships again among speakers and certainly between the younger generations and older generations. That's really key because both values and perspectives about the world are passed down through language in all the stories, just everyday activities that happen in the family. Those should still continue, there shouldn't be a stop to that."

Treuer sees his relationship with his heritage language as a bigger part of overall health: a healthy language means a healthy culture, which is also tied into a healthy diet and finances and politics.

"The success of a country like America will never be its ability to assimilate everybody into one big monoculture, but its ability to support many different cultures and languages and ways of solving problems and a diversity of identities," Treuer says. "Language revitalization, it's not just about more pretty birds singing in the forest. It's about the most powerful tools that help everybody have a long, healthy, happy life."

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