PABLO — In 2006, the people of the Jemez Pueblo nation took an unconventional approach to reversing the impact colonization had on its ancient cultural practices and Towa language. A team made of up elders and community members worked to research and identify the unique framework of the Jemez’ identity, including ceremony, cultural practices, and social constructs.
The research study revealed a decline in speakers of the Towa language and Jemez Education Director Kevin Shendo said the community needed to act quickly. “We had to get serious if we were going to salvage who we are as a people,” he said. “We used that research to develop a comprehensive plan to reestablish our identity into our community’s everyday life. Education was going to be our key. We needed to redefine what education meant.”
In 2007 the Walatowa Head Start established a Towa language immersion program focused on developing fluent speakers. With no written language, the school had difficulties validating its curriculum to state officials. “They wanted evidence based curriculum,” Shendo said. “Our language was passed through thousands of years and still exists; isn’t that evidence based enough? We had to overcome communication barriers in order to work with these outside agencies and meet our needs.”
Walatowa Head Start students and their families were given cameras to photograph elements of the Jemez culture that is practiced within their homes. The photos served as a research study that was translated into curriculum that connects Jemez culture with Early Childhood requirements. “Our students make traditional pottery, they work in our school garden, they hear our oral history directly from elders who visit our classroom, they learn to count and they practice traditional songs and dances,” Shendo said. “We have an interactive curriculum and it translates to meet all needs.”
Since the school was instituted, the program’s curriculum has received national recognition and its program manager Lana Toya received an educator of the year award by the White House. The language program has since expanded to work with students K-12 by collaborating within all charter and public schools located within the Jemez reservation. A 2018 census conducted by the tribe revealed that 80 percent of its people are fluent speakers. “A classroom setting can only do so much in revitalizing a language and culture,” Shendo said. “We needed a united vision that was supported across our entire nation from our members to our leaders. It takes everyone working toward a single goal to make true change.”
Shendo was a guest presenter during the Montana Early Childhood Tribal Language Summit at Salish Kootenai College. The summit was attended by tribal language instructors from Early Childhood programs throughout the state. The workshops focused on an exchange of curriculum methods and resources. National American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start Collaboration Office Director Micke Richardson said the summit highlights significant work. “Tribal languages are the original languages of this continent,” he said. “The work these people are doing is very critical and to have an opportunity to teach young children ensures that the languages will live on.”