Published August 1, 2021
Why Do I Teach English?© 2021 by Red Woman (Hasdzaan Łich’éé’)
I recall talking to animals at the corral with my grandmother. I remember putting all the lambs and goats in a separate fenced area. I ran in circles, and they bleated, ran, and bucked besides me as they filled my time. My grandmother and grandfather caught goats to milk in the early dawn. The chickens, pigs, ducks, horse, cattle, and Blue Birds chimed into the morning glory. The sweet smell of sheep, horse, and the vegetable stew added to the beautiful voices of my childhood place. My paternal Grandpa Kaydohyah Hale would talk about how sounds were language when we were Spirit People. He’d sing and tell about how deities had gifted the “Diné language” to the human people when the Holy People (Deities) went back to the Holy Land (Energy Pool of Life).
My paternal Grandma Ahadesbah Hale talked about how my dad used to hide from the Bilagaana in a dug-out covered with dirt.I often wondered who these people were who spoke English; at the same time, I realized I spoke English too. It was ironic to know that I spoke the language, but didn’t understand the history. As a young kid, we didn’t have the luxury of a TV or a radio. I do remember my mother taking us to a Catholic church in St. Michaels, but I didn’t understand the lyrics, readings, or singing. My father never attended church because no one could interpret for him. My father was the last “warrior” of his time.
My grandmother Ahadesbah (father’s mom) died when I was a junior in high school. My world stopped and I went into depression. I was in a slumber as I attended classes. I enrolled in Native American Literature class, and that resuscitated me. I fell in love with how the English language was used to convey domestic life. It was like a new dawn. I recall a native woman writer was invited to our class to give her presentation about her work. She talked about her work and read to us. I remembered she was so tenacious in her words as tears streamed down her cheeks as she read her story. I too was reminded about the way my grandmother stood by her words in prayer as tears flowed from her face in a ceremony. The new path led to my enrolling at Diné College because I wanted to be taught by someone who stood by their words, someone published, a native educator. More importantly, from our college on the Navajo Nation. This woman put the “light” back into my life, just as my grandma had in my childhood.
Soon, I was interested in learning how to use English to become a better writer. I began to read native writers and eventually was led to my Bachelor of Science in English, with a focus on Secondary Education at Northern Arizona University. I was beginning to study how to teach English. I wanted to show students that a language is a tool for survival in the Western world, yet, celebrate Indigenous concepts. Meaningful learning can happen.
As my interest in using English became more apparent, I was turned off to a Medieval Language course I took in my undergraduate degree, because I didn’t have a clue about verses from the bible. The course required knowledge about biblical history and poems.
Deep down, I wanted to know more about English and why my father hid from it. What was so scary that he hid from it? At the same time, I yearned for native writers’ stories because they resonated with me during my loss. The stories were about everyday events that we could understand, not about “Skip” and Sally. Today, I see native English instructors and writers as the new breed of Healers. They use words to heal; they are caretakers.
I remember a time my father talked about how the spoken word can heal, if correctly worded. He predicted that in the future when our language is spoken less, our native people would one day be in hiding, coveting a recorded tape/cd or voice recorder to suffice for a “healing” ceremony. One song might be left to suffice for a 9-day ceremony. Today, I know of Healers who use the phone to conduct a ceremonial service for a Diagnosis session. Perhaps, we are near? As I continued in my studies at the Master level, I began to become more aware of how native communities rely on bilingual programs to suffice for language and cultural sustainability; this brought me back to my father’s prediction.
WHY DO I TEACH ENGLISH?
Reflecting on my 14 years teaching at the high school level and being an Academic Coach, I saw how teachers’ taught to the test and students were over-tested in quarterly benchmark assessments. I saw that schools allowed our Indigenous language to become graveyards because many of the concepts/standards didn’t align with native epistemologies. For example, the Arizona Standards list fire as dangerous, destructive, and harmful. Whereas, in Diné belief, fire is a deity; a Holy Person. The concept has duality for the fire to be understood and appreciated as Male Fire and Female Fire, called Dihidii’eeh Bik’a doo Dihidii’eeh Bi’aad. The concept that fire represents four thoughts: Nanise’ K’o’ (Friction Fire); Haalk’aal K’o’ (Flint Fire); ‘Iini’ K’o’ (Lightening Fire); and Tsegha’dinidiinii K’o’ (Crystal Fire).
Now that I work with the Master Program at Northern Arizona University with the Diné Dual Language Professional Development Program, it has opened my perspectives to using the English language as a tool to celebrate indigeneity. As a Researcher and Faculty, the NAU cohort students are taught to reclaim their indigenous language and cultural ways as they embed them in their teaching methodologies and to explain concepts in K-12 schools throughout the Navajo Nation.
As an English instructor, I like to align indigenous into Western concepts because I want my students to understand they don’t have to relinquish language and heritage ways to be “competent” in the Western world. I’ve taught Indigenous Ways of Knowing in Physics, Biology, Geology, Chemistry, Thermal Dynamics, and Coding courses with the STEM field. I teach students and faculty to respect (in their approaches) the “natural elements” they are manipulating in the name of science or education. When the affective-filter lowers, meaningful learning happens. My maternal Grandmother, Red Woman, taught me to “see” from the spiritual side. She was a Crystal Gazer and a Listener. I use that to understand both worlds.
I see teaching (English language) like using a cup (tool) to drink water. A container is a tool; decorated, painted, or sculpted, but it is still a cup: a device. It, for example, can be a flower pot, a measuring cup, a useful tool. The details are our cultural ontology, cosmology, and epistemology. I see English as a “tool” to describe our Indigenous ways. However, if we are serious about sustaining our linguistic and cultural ways, we’d have to immerse ourselves within our villages/homesteads. Perhaps, a village school is another possibility?