To E.L.L. and Back Again
- an Essay on Indigenous Peoples' Civil Rights- Additional Notes

by Jim Crittenden

An adequate answer to the question of how the AZ Dept. of Education ELL policy is adversely affecting the civil rights of the people of Kayenta requires that it be given not only within the context of the community itself, but also with the acknowledgement that the very language of the discussion has a role to play.

As the complainant, it is only fair to expect that my complaint be registered in my primary language, English. In fact, even after thirteen years living and working in Kayenta, I still know very little Navajo language. Yet I do understand its connection to Navajo culture well enough to state that the language and culture are essentially two sides of the same coin, so to speak. This awareness is also made clear through formal graduate research, particularly in the academic research work going on in Canada. For me, therefore, it is informed through both academic study, as well as experience, my main source of knowledge.

The main thrust of the old "Kill the Indian, Save the Man" philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries focused upon language replacement. Removing a language from a culture removes the power behind that culture, allowing assimilation into the dominant society to proceed more easily. Fortunately, most Navajo children today are still growing up with traditional Navajo culture around them; but it is not available to them on a steady basis. Family gatherings, community events, news reports, and even rare school events provide cultural experiences for the children. However, the primetime of daily existence for any child is schooling. It occupies the greater part of their day. In a traditional tribal environment, the children would be learning directly from their elders, within the community's context, where the power of the language drives the integration of the culture and the person.

That is not the case in practice today. Today, the child is placed within the State school system, and is subject to the rules, regulations, and practices of that System. Community involvement is restricted to representation by five School Board members, or direct employment within the District- both of which carry within themselves the seeds of potential conflicts of interest. If the rules of the school system are at odds with the community, then the community suffers. This has been the case among Native communities and the state school system literally for generations. It is commonly called a "clash of cultures".

Native cultural transmission is in an extremely fragile state at the present time. Relatively recent attempts to reform this clash of cultures has led to very positive changes in how the state school system serves Native communities. The federal Native American Languages Act mandates efforts to support Indigenous languages and cultures in the public schools. Public awareness of the injustices done to Native peoples over the years has also led to more proactive policies at all other levels of government. Very recently, though, with the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind act, and the Arizona Proposition 203 English-only law, the reform effort is not only stalling out, it is literally being supressed. Two modest orders were promulgated by the President to mediate the effects of NCLB on Tribal schools: Executive Order on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (EO 13336). and Executive Order on American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities (EO 13592). A disclaimer at the end of the Order makes it little more than an exhortation. The second Order weakly attempts to rectify that. Incredibly, the State of Arizona has a similar Order going back to 1985 (doc file). Clearly, the four-hour pullout policy mandated as a result of Prop. 203 is a contradiction of Arizona's own official acknowledgement of the importance of Native languages and cultures.

At conflict here is the dichotomy between accountability for student achievement under state and federal guidelines, and accountability for student achievement under local and tribal expectations. By mandating a four-hour English-only pullout program, the one is met only at the expense of the other. This conflict represents an assault upon my civil rights, and the civil rights of my fellow teachers, my students and the entire community of Kayenta.

This situation is not the first adverse effect upon Kayenta, and Native communities in general, of Arizona's efforts to apply a one size fits all solution to a problem in public education. The NCLB federal law requires teachers in federally funded schools to be "highly qualified" in the areas they teach. NCLB leaves the determination of what highly qualified is to the discretion of each state's legislature. In Arizona, this determination is embodied within the Arizona Revised Statues, which leaves it up to the State Board of Education, which created a set of rules and regulations that precisely makes the highly qualified determination about a teacher's status. This regulation requires all teachers to pass a test called the Arizona Educator's Proficiency Assessment, or AEPA. The AEPA was not designed with Native cultural considerations in mind, though. In fact, the construction of the AEPA was farmed out to a company in Massachusetts, a state where Native cultures have been extinct for hundreds of years!

The result of this policy has been that Native teachers, and prospective Native teachers are being adversely affected in their efforts to mantain their status as teachers within their own communities and tribal schools. In 2007, I made an effort to have the State rules changed by allowing alternative measures of "highly qualified" be used, such as portfolios, videos of classroom conduct, and administrator observations and reviews. These steps would have gone a long ways toward remedying the unfair cultural bias of the AEPA qualifications with regard to Native teachers. Several legislators, administrators, lawyers, and fellow educators I have contacted have supported this simple revision of the State rules concerning the determination of the NCLB "highly qualified" mandate, but no action has as yet come down as a result.

Thus, my complaint is actually based upon not one, but two major Arizona policies that are oppressing the civil rights of me, my fellow teachers, my students, and the entire community of Kayenta: a.) the four-hour English-only mandate for all Arizona public school districts; b.) the AEPA as the only measure of "highly qualified" for Arizona teachers. My complaint alleges that both of these policies are based upon administrative convenience and saving money at the expense of my civil rights. I also believe that proper remedies do exist, and I am requesting that the US Department of Education Civil Rights Division help in mediating these proper remedies as soon as possible.

Thank you again for looking into this matter. I hope this additional information helps make clearer to you the context of my complaint, as well as the specific policies that have led to my complaint being made to you.

Sincerely, Jim Crittenden


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Last updated: January 26, 2013