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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Speaking out again – in Hopi

    It was during recess on the playground around the third grade when Sheilah Nicholas decided to give up her native tongue to fit in with the white kids.

    “”I remember coming home one day crying,”” she said. “”Some kids had been making of me because I couldn’t speak English right.””

    Nicholas, an assistant professor for the Department of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona’s College of Education, grew up on the Hopi Reservation speaking and hearing nothing but Hopi before moving to a mission school in Winslow, located in a border town of the Navajo Nation.

    The Hopi tribe sits on nearly 4,000 square miles and is completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona.

    Mother a product

    of boarding school

    During a time when many Native students across the nation were still having their languages beat out of them in boarding schools, Nicholas was mocked during playtime at the Mission School in Winslow.

    Nicholas’ mother is a product of the boarding school era, an attempt by the federal government to assimilate Native people – or, as many government officials would say, “”kill the Indian and save the man”” – by sending Native children to boarding schools.

    Her mother attended the Phoenix Indian School in Phoenix from age 12 to 17.

    “”That was one of the most humiliating times of her life,”” she said of her mother. “”No one wants to tell you how they were humiliated.””

    From the 1880s to about the 1950s, Native students as young as 3 years old were taken from their families and forced to attend boarding schools across the nation, many of which were thousands of miles away from their homes.

    Many had their waist-long hair cut to resemble that of a white man, many had their mouths washed out with soap or beat if caught speaking their language and many died of homesickness – all a result of hopes of assimilating the Native kids.

    This is the history of many Native people who still live with the painful memories. Scholars today say the federal government has succeeded in their efforts to assimilate Native people.

    Native languages today

    According to the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau data, more than one-third of American Indian and Alaska Native languages now have fewer than 100 speakers.

    The shift from a Native language to English can be seen even among the speakers of the healthiest indigenous languages, according to James Crawford, a former Washington editor for Education Week and language policy historian.

    For instance, the Navajos were among the slowest to become bilingual, Crawford wrote in the most recent study. As late as 1930, 71 percent of Navajos spoke no English, compared with only 17 percent of all Native Americans at the time.

    Crawford further states that for Navajos living on the reservation, ages 5 and older, the proportion of English-only speakers rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 1990. For those ages 5 to 17, the increase was even more dramatic from about 12 percent to 28 percent.

    No more Hopi

    Upon returning home from school, Nicholas told her aunt of the painful teases by the non-Native students. Her aunt’s suggestion: focus on learning English.

    “”She never told me to quit using Hopi,”” Nicholas said. “”But I never spoke it again. I never answered back in Hopi, not even to answer back to someone. I just listened.””

    Nicholas went through junior high and high school still not speaking Hopi.

    It wasn’t until college that she decided that she was Hopi.

    “”I am Hopi,”” she said. “”No one is going to tell me I’m not Hopi. How Hopi I want to be depends on me. People don’t realize the challenges and sacrifices our people went through to keep our languages and identity.””

    Nicholas said after years of putting the Hopi language on the shelf, she pulled it back out and began using it daily despite the struggle.

    She uses it in e-mails, to greet fellow Hopis on the street, to converse with her family and, most importantly, to use in traditional teachings and ceremonies.

    “”You get a deeper connection spiritually when you know the language,”” she said. “”It’s the lens you use to describe your perspective of the world. You can’t experience it without the language.””

    Language, like many other Native cultures, is used in proverbs, in stories and in prayer, and to sing sacred songs.

    Almost 15 years after Nicholas decided that she would relearn the Hopi language, she has reclaimed her speaking ability.

    “”In order to keep it,”” she said, “”you have to learn it and use it. It is a constant battle but I am becoming more comfortable using Hopi.””

    In the College of Education, where Nicholas is the only Native American to be hired in recent years, she has made it her life’s work to help in efforts to revitalize the Hopi language.

    If she is not on her way back to the Hopi Junior/Senior High School, a near-seven-hour drive from Tucson, she is teaching future teachers how to teach the Hopi language as a program developer at the UA American Indian Language Development Institute.

    “”It is my responsibility to show that I am still Hopi,”” Nicholas said.

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