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Science and Innovations

Preschool Fights To Save Endangered Hopi Language

Melissa Sevigny

The Hopi language is endangered. A survey in the late nineties showed only five percent of Hopis under the age of twenty could speak it. Language loss is partially due to the legacy of boarding schools, which tried to assimilate Hopis into Anglo society. But it’s also because of modern pressures like television, the Internet, and employment. Hopis say losing the language means losing their culture. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, teachers on the reservation are fighting back with a summer program for preschoolers.

A group of three- and four-year olds sit cross-legged on the floor of their classroom in Kykotsmovi  Village on Third Mesa. Their teacher shows them a series of flash cards. She’s teaching them verbs today: walk, jump, run. When the students answer in English, she corrects them gently: only in Hopi, she says.  

“Children need to be exposed to the language,” says Marilyn Parra. “That identifies them as who they are. A big part of it is learning their Hopi name.”

Marilyn Parra is the teacher’s English name. Her Hopi name is Qoöyawisnöm, “blue dawn.”  

“Because you are given a Hopi name 20 days after you are born, you have life plan set out for you already then, and it’s important to know their Hopi name and then also their Clan,” she says.  

For Hopi, language is tied to identity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. government tried to stamp out that identity: it forced children into boarding schools and punished them for speaking their language. Robert Rhodes is an educator on the reservation. He says, “I think that was a gross error on the part of the U.S. government and on the part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to make everyone into one size fits all, into Anglos. Hopi are not Anglos.”

But modern schools both on and off the reservation still emphasize English. Rhodes says many parents want that for their children, so they’ll get good jobs. Rhodes says, “I’ve been out here since 1971 and I see the direction that the schools have pushed the Hopis into. It’s pushed them into in some ways becoming less Hopi.”

Rhodes and tribal members wanted to create a school based on Hopi customs and values. They got funding from an unexpected source when Princess Irene of Greece, founder of a charity called World in Harmony, visited the Hopi Nation and offered a startup grant. Hopitutuqaiki was born -- The Hopi School. It started with classes in traditional arts but later added the language-immersion preschool.

The teacher’s aide Tresa Suafkie says the kids enter the class speaking English or pahana. “We try to zip our pahana, put it in our pocket, we bring our Hopi out.... We are Hopi and we should always be Hopi and talk Hopi.”

Saufkie explains Hopis who don’t speak the language can’t take part in some religious ceremonies. “We don’t want to push anybody away but they have to understand and know the meaning of why they’re doing it…. If we lost our Hopi language, I can very much say there would be no culture at all.”

The preschoolers pick up words quickly—even with two teachers speaking two different dialects. It’s harder for adults to regain a lost language. But Lauren Lomatska is trying. She enrolled her daughter Eva in the preschool, and now does her best to speak the language at home.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I’m still learning, and she’s teaching me too as well,” she says. “We’re learning at the same rate. She’s even teaching me more Hopi than what I would know.”

Lomatska is the preschool’s cook. She makes traditional food for the children and teaches them the Hopi names for the dishes. “I’m just happy to see their smiles and they’re trying! That’s the big thing, they’re trying. We encourage that. Keep on trying. Always try. I like to say to them, [speaking in Hopi] “eat and be happy.” I always tell them that. That’s the best thing.”

When the kids leave preschool they’ll go on to English speaking classrooms. But the teachers say your language doesn’t die. It’s always inside of you. It just needs a bit of practice to come alive.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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