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National

Teaching To Protect The Hopi Language

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hopi is one of the hundred Indigenous languages in the United States in danger of disappearing. And teachers on the Hopi Nation in northeastern Arizona are fighting to protect their language. Melissa Sevigny of member station KNAU reports from a summer program for preschoolers.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: A group of 3- and 4-year-olds sit cross-legged on the floor of their classroom in Kykotsmovi Village. Their teacher shows them a series of flashcards. She's teaching them verbs today - walk, jump, run.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Hopi).

MARILYN PARRA: (Speaking Hopi).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Hopi).

SEVIGNY: When the students answer in English, she corrects them gently. Only in Hopi, she says.

PARRA: Children need to be exposed to the language, you know, that identifies them as who they are. And a big part of it is learning their Hopi name.

SEVIGNY: Marilyn Parra is the teacher's English name. Her Hopi name is Qooyawisnom (ph), Blue Dawn.

PARRA: Because you are given a Hopi name, you know, 20 days after you are born, you know, you have a life plan set out for you already then. And it's important to know their Hopi name and then, also, their clan.

SEVIGNY: Fewer than 10,000 people live on the Hopi Nation, where 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 and founder of The Hopi School.

ROBERT RHODES: 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. Hopis are not Anglos.

SEVIGNY: Rhodes' school is called Hopitutuqaki, and it's based on Hopi customs and values, such as teaching through art. One of the teachers, Tresa Saufkie, says kids enter the preschool class speaking English, or pahana (ph).

TRESA SAUFKIE: We try to zip our pahana (ph), put it in our pocket. We bring our Hopi out. We are Hopi, and we should always be Hopi and talk Hopi.

SEVIGNY: Saufkie explains Hopis who don't speak the language can't take part in some religious ceremonies.

SAUFKIE: 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 that there would be no culture at all.

SEVIGNY: Saufkie worries many young parents no longer speak Hopi to their children at home. But Lauren Lomatska is trying to learn alongside her 6-year-old daughter Eva.

LAUREN LOMATSKA: I'm not ashamed to say that I'm still learning and she's teaching me, too, as well. You know, we're learning at the same rate, and she's even teaching me more Hopi than what I would know.

SEVIGNY: Lomatska is the preschool's cook and makes traditional Hopi food for the children.

LOMATSKA: I'm just happy to see that, you know, their smiles and that they're trying. You know, that's the big thing is that they're trying. And we encourage that. You know, keep on trying. Always try.

SEVIGNY: Together, they practice the Hopi names for the dishes.

LOMATSKA: I like to say to them, (speaking Hopi), eat and be happy. I always tell them that. You know, that's the best thing.

SEVIGNY: When the kids leave preschool, they go on to English-speaking classrooms. But the teachers say their language won't die. It stays inside of them. It just needs a bit of practice to come alive.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny on the Hopi Nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "MILLIONS OF BIRDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.