Posted 11/16/2009 - 10:55:19am by Michele Melendez
You can learn the history, the folklore, the music, the dance. But you may never truly understand a culture – a people – without knowing the language. That feeling drives Lillian Rice in her work, teaching children a Native American language slipping into extinction.
The Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals of Minneapolis gives workers who are old enough and wise enough to be considered “elders” in native communities an opportunity to get paid to do what only they can: save a language.
The organization’s program, called the Wicoie Nandagikendan Urban Immersion Preschools Project, has given Rice, 77, a chance to fulfill a longtime wish: “It was one of my private thoughts, wondering, `How can I reach the young ones?’”
In three Minneapolis classrooms – two in a public preschool and one in a child care center – more than 50 Native American children, ages 16 months to 5 years, participate in language immersion classes in Ojibwe or Dakota.
For three hours every weekday, children learn in the assigned native language. No English is allowed. To prepare them for kindergarten, they learn pre-literacy skills and math concepts. They talk through simple tasks, such as washing hands or using a spoon. They hear native stories. They learn about the “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash – the main crops of many tribes.
Each class is led by an elder, who is paired with a younger person, an apprentice.
In Native American communities there’s a distinction between an “older person” and an “elder,” says Margaret Boyer, executive director of the Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals, a statewide advocacy group.
“An elder understands our cultural values,” she says. “There’s general agreement that they have a lot of wisdom and, just through living their life, have shown that they have a lot to share.”
The elders who lead the language classes, three regulars and a substitute, are in their 60s and 70s. They get paid $30 an hour for the part-time work, more per hour than the executive director’s position, “because they’re needed so badly,” Boyer says.
UNESCO reports that the Ojibwe language is “severely endangered,” with only 8,000
speakers. The Sioux language, which includes the Dakota and Lakota dialects, is “vulnerable,” with 25,000 speakers.
The idea for the preschool program, which began in 2006, came from a group of Native American preschool teachers the alliance convened in 1999 as part of an effort to reach out to underrepresented communities.
John Poupart, president of the American Indian Policy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, commends the Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals’ efforts and compensation of elders. “The elders have really been the libraries of our people,” he says.
Rice says the pay reflects the complexities of the job, which include developing the curriculum and mentoring the apprentice: “I don’t think that I would do it on a volunteer basis. It’s hard work.”
In retaining elders, the alliance recognizes the need to be flexible. Workers in their 60s and 70s may need time off for family commitments, medical appointments or just for a break, Boyer says.
“We take the long view with staff,” she adds. “If you invest in people over the long haul, their commitment, their vision and their wisdom can make a change.”