Leaders in tribal education center language preservation

“This should be a national model,” lawmaker says

By: - April 29, 2022 5:00 am

Helen Tafoya snaps a group photo of state lawmakers and their staff visiting Jemez Pueblo on Wednesday, April 27, 2022 to learn about innovations in education programs that emphasize language immersion and culturally appropriate curriculum. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

Except for towers of smoke from the Cerro Pelado wildfire billowing over the horizon, Wednesday was a perfectly clear, mild spring morning in the mountain valley where New Mexico lawmakers visiting Jemez Pueblo were greeted by several of the tribe’s educational leaders. 

Surveying the distant smoke from an overlook, Democratic state Sen. Benny Shendo, Jr., himself a member of Jemez Pueblo, told colleagues and their staff that the village they were visiting was not actually the traditional center of the tribe. 

As of Friday morning, the Cerro Pelado wildfire 7 miles east of Jemez Springs had burned a little over 6,000 acres and was 15% contained.

It was 1541 when the first Spanish conquistadors traversed the mesas near today’s village, he said. The Europeans estimated that there were up to 15,000 people living in settlements throughout the Jemez mountains. Today the tribe counts about 3,400 official members, Shendo added, with the vast majority — about 90% — of their ancestral lands now designated U.S. federal properties with restricted access.

Other ancestral lands now under supervision by the U.S. National Park Service are especially difficult for tribal members to reach, he said. “That infringes on our religious freedom.”

Overcoming the stumbling blocks tribes encounter as they work to educate their young people in ways that meaningfully counteract such historical infringements on their ancestral liberties, knowledge and lifeways was at the forefront of the state’s Legislative Education Study Committee visit to Jemez Pueblo. 

Jeremy Oyenque, director of Youth and Learning for Santa Clara Pueblo said at one point during the daylong visit: “How do New Mexico’s Native American tribes define sovereignty over the education of their children when they depend on funding from outside governments to educate their children? Sovereignty means everything to tribes. But how solid is it?”

While plumes from the Cerro Pelado fire were still visible from doorsteps of portable buildings where Jemez early childhood and Head Start classes are held, the rooms themselves felt like peaceful sanctuaries. Six students had just circled up on a colorful carpet for the morning’s next activity in their Native language-immersion preschool. 

Jemez Pueblo is approaching its 10th year since implementation of its fully language-immersive curriculum, a model backed by collaborative support from a successful Native language-immersion initiative out of Hawaii. 

Classroom visitors are asked to refrain from speaking English to the children but encouraged to address them in any other tongue they’re conversant in. All child care providers in Jemez speak Towa in their instruction, beginning each day in the classroom with a traditional prayer.

Artwork and handmade posters on the classroom walls feature illustrated elements of life in the pueblo, from photographs of local landmarks, to imagery representing the familial clans within their tribe. The Jemez people are matrilineal, with each newborn baby continuing the clan line of their mother, and clan affiliation determining a person’s spiritual and religious role within the tribe. 

“My mother is from the old school,” said one teacher. “She packed corn with her when we were going to the hospital for her to give birth. The minute the baby is born, the corn bestows their tribal name.”

In another classroom for babies and toddlers, teachers sat in a circle with little ones singing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in Towa. And next door in a Head Start room, preschoolers were practicing basic arithmetic, speaking Towa as they counted out loud to 10 and then 20.

Starting as young as 6-months-old, students in Jemez Pueblo’s early childhood education and Head Start programs are immersed in a curriculum that imparts local values, a strong sense of cultural identity and confidence in speaking Towa. (Photo by Helen Tafoya, courtesy of Pueblo of Jemez)

Sen. William Soules, chairman of the committee who’s a former educator and school principal, said “this should be a national program” admiringly as he exited one classroom.

Helen Tafoya is a creative team member for the tribe’s Hemish Language Immersion School for upper grades of elementary school students, as well as the Head Start program, working with teachers to create traditional, culturally based curriculum and lessons. As she drove a group of lawmakers in her minivan along the dirt roads threading across the village, Tafoya said she fervently wishes all the tribe’s educational programs were Towa language-immersive. “If we lose our language, that’s it.”

There’s a gap within the tribe when it comes to knowledge and acquisition of the Jemez language, she added, with some generations having experienced profound loss of their Native language and thus culture. There’s also more intermarriage between Jemez Pueblo members and people from outside groups than there was traditionally. “We’re teaching them as much as we can, but we have a lot of young parents who don’t speak the language at home,” Tafoya said.

So the tribe is also looking to expand home-based lesson plans. That way families can practice Towa together and incorporate more experiential learning outside the classroom. 

Because Towa has no written form, students go on field trips and work with photographs snapped during guided tours of tribal lands. Those same photos help them tell stories about their homelands and use localized geographical names. Jemez teachers guide students on visits to ceremonial sites, and help them learn to introduce themselves in Towa using their Native name, clan name, and their specific ties to the land.

Later in the day, legislators convened back in the Jemez community center to hear from tribal educators from across the state as they provided overviews of the language immersion and related educational initiatives in progress in their communities. 

An educator speaking with lawmakers said for years she’d been frustrated by curriculum and testing that seemed totally at odds with the histories and experiences of students she was working with. “I can’t deliver instruction that isn’t relevant to the kids.” (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

After more than one lawmaker mentioned the word “data,” Lana Garcia, manager of the Jemez Walatowa Head Start Immersion Program, interjected that student success is not always well measured by conventional standards like test scores and graduation rates. 

She told the story of a recent feast day celebration at the pueblo, during which she’d found herself awestruck by the importance of the tribe’s young people knowing their inherent value and where they come from. There was a circle of grown men praying in Towa and drumming in ceremony. At one moment, they dropped the volume of their voices. Little boys gathered nearby, who’d been learning Towa in their Head Start classes, responded by confidently raising their voices to meet their elders’.

“When I saw that, I said to myself, ‘That! That is success right there,’” Garcia said. “Success means strong, positive, healthy individuals connected to their communities.”


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Margaret Wright
Margaret Wright

Margaret Wright is a freelance journalist whose previous work has appeared at the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Political Report, Santa Fe Reporter, KUNM News and Popula, among other local outlets now shuttered. Homesickness besets her if she’s outside of the high desert for too long.