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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 17, 2004 - Issue 111


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Perpetuating the Language

by Noel Lyn Smith The Navajo Times
credits: Window Rock Elementary School first graders sing during the Group Singing category at the Dine' Language Arts Fari Aapril 8 at Dine' College in Tsaile. (Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

Window Rock Elementary School first graders sing during the Group Singing category at the Dine' Language Arts Fari Aapril 8 at Dine' College in Tsaile. (Times photo - Paul Natonabah)TSAILE, Ariz. - Two boys wear vests cut from Blue Bird flour bags. Follow them into the Diné College Student Activity Center and enter a roomful of traditionally dressed elementary students.

Welcome to the Diné Language Arts Fair sponsored by the Center for Diné Teacher Education at Diné College. In different competitions, students speak Navajo while performing.

Twenty-three schools participated - some traveling from as far away as Page, Ariz., Blanding, Utah, and Phoenix.

"This is our eighth annual, so we must be doing something good," said Terri Becenti, academic advisor for the Center for Diné Teacher Education and fair event coordinator.

The purpose of the fair is "to perpetuate Navajo language" and to give children an opportunity to show what they learned, Becenti said.

The importance of language and cultural instruction are the reasons for the fair, said Ben Barney, director for the Center of Diné Teacher Education. Even though the fair is annual, it helps teach Navajo by having fluently speaking students work alongside first-time speakers.

Intermediate and primary levels had the most participating students.

Barney thinks the smaller number of college students may be caused by changes in attitude toward the language as they grow.

Barney is also the president of the Diné Language Association, which concentrates on the use and concerns of the language. The association provides curriculums, materials and lessons in teaching Navajo.

The fair gives teachers the opportunity to communicate with other teachers who are facing the same struggles of teaching Navajo in English-only systems, said Barney.

Students of the college's Diné teacher education program also had the chance to speak publicly in Navajo, either by announcing or helping to run the fair. Some graduates of the program brought their own students to the event.

Audra Platero, a first grade teacher with the Navajo Immersion Program at Window Rock Elementary School, had 12 students participate in the fair.

"It's a great idea and an opportunity for children across the reservation, on and off, to display what they have learned in the Navajo language," Platero said.

With the difficulty in learning Navajo, it is good to know these students are learning the language, she said.

Dean James, second grade teacher with the Navajo Immersion Program at Window Rock Elementary, had 10 students participating. His students have been practicing since the beginning of the school year.
Language teaches students self-identification and builds self-esteem, James said.

Not only does James enjoy bringing his students to the fair, he also likes them to watch the other students and learn from the performances.

"A lot of our young kids are ashamed of our language and it shouldn't be that way" said James. "We should let the kids know that our language has gone through so much and out of respect we should keep it going."

Shandiin Yazzie, a student in James' class, sang "Have a beautiful home" with her classmates. The song explains how the home is blessed while they eat and sleep and the home is surrounded by love.

Yazzie learned how to count, name the months of the year, and name the Four Sacred Mountains in Navajo. "We're trying to win a trophy," she said.
Some families also were in attendance. Gerald James' daughter, Tashaka James, a first grader at Canyon de Chelly Elementary in Chinle, performed with her class.

Gerald said he enjoys when Tashaka shares what she learned in Navajo class with the rest of the family.

Tashaka was worried about her dress for two weeks, Gerald said. After a last minute problem, Tashaka was on stage with her classmates performing "All the butterflies sing."

When the fair started, entries were from high school to elementary school students. Since then, college students may participate.

This year's categories were individual poem reading, choral reading, storytelling and joke telling, solo singing, and group singing.

The reader's theater and original works were open to high school and college students. Students are judged on introduction, eye contact, voice level, voice clarity, poise, posture, use of props, appearance, and receive additional points for extra effort.

Schools participating included: San Juan High (Blanding, Utah); Newcomb High (Newcomb, N.M.); Tse Ho Tso Primary, Tse Ho Tso Intermediate and Tse Ho Tso Middle (Fort Defiance); Page Middle (Page, Ariz.); Leupp School, Inc. (Leupp, Ariz.); Window Rock High and Window Rock Elementary (Fort Defiance); Greasewood Springs Community School (Greasewood Springs, Ariz.); Navajo Preparatory (Farmington); Atsa Biyaazh Community School (Shiprock); Rock Point Community School (Rock Point, Ariz.); Bluff Elementary (Bluff, Utah); Indian Wells Elementary (Indian Wells, Ariz.); Naschitti Elementary (Naschitti, N.M.); Newcomb Middle and Newcomb Elementary (Newcomb, N.M.); Puente de Hozho (Flagstaff); Canyon de Chelly Elementary (Chinle); Desert View Elementary (Page, Ariz.); ARL Middle (Blanding, Utah); Phoenix College; and Diné College (Tsaile, Ariz.).

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