More than words

Alaska's senators push for revitalization of Native languages in schools

A bill that would amend the Native American Programs Act of 1974 to reauthorize a provision to ensure the survival and continuing vitality of Native American languages is currently being weighed in a Congressional committee. It has a 19 percent chance of being enacted, according to — but what’s at stake if congress doesn’t act?


Policy in the making

Senate Bill 2299 was introduced on May 7 by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., with 10 cosponsors, including Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich. It sits now in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and while gives it a 95 percent chance of making it out of committee, passage through the Senate and House is deemed unlikely — only about 3 percent of bills that made it past committee were enacted between 2011 and 2013.

Murkowski pushed the legislation in a press release detailing her interactions with Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education William Mendoza.

“Those responsible for improving the education outcomes of our Native students must understand and take action knowing the moral gravity of inaction is another generation that we have failed,” Murkowski said.

She echoed the sentiments of other Native languages advocates and scholars, linking academic achievement and success to Native language revitalization.

Begich cited similar reasons for cosponsoring legislation like S.2299.

“There are over 65 Native language immersion programs operating throughout the U.S. These programs work every day to ensure the survival of language for their people. Language is central to cultural identity because it provides a link to the past and future generations of a people. Native language teaching has been shown to increase student attendance and retention in school, as well as build self-confidence and promote a more positive view of education,” Begich said in an email communication.

At a local level, though, language revitalization and culturally based education is happening, even if the bill still sits in committee.

Language and culturally based education in action

“The basic thesis we’ve established is integrating language and culture into education for Native students improves their academic status or standing,” said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl.

Based on evaluations of programs instituted at Juneau schools, the thesis seems to be correct.

“All evaluations of the (Tlingit Culture, Language and Literature) program show that when we do integrate it into schools and classrooms, children do better academically,” Worl said.

When faced with statistics showing Native students experienced lower graduation rates and lower rates of entering post-secondary education programs, educators and advocates needed to determine how to reverse the trend.

“We have to ask ourselves, in regard to Native children and all children, ‘What do they need to know to be constructive, well-rounded and respectful human beings?’” said Juneau School District Native Student Success Specialist Barbara Cadiente-Nelson.

“TCLL was founded based on needs and expectations of the Native community, what they wanted for their children in terms of education that would be relevant,” she said.

Cadiente-Nelson considers cultural and place-based education to be a holistic approach to education that is relevant to all students and critical to students being “prepared for the world at large.”

Cultural and place-based education is shown to improve student achievement and success, while also encouraging involvement from family and community, which has proven to be an important factor in student achievement. It also increases cross-cultural understanding between different demographics in Juneau’s schools, Worl said.

There is culture and place-based education integrated into Juneau’s public schools and there are programs through Sealaska Heritage Institute and Goldbelt Heritage Foundation with language immersion and culture and place-based curriculum, including camps that teach tough subjects like math in a culturally relevant manner.

Integrating heritage language is a key part of this model of education.

“I’m not saying that Tlingit will ever be spoken as a first language again,” Worl said, “But I’ve said that we would create habitats where children would speak the language.”

Examples Worl gave included ceremonies organized by Hans and Jessica Chester in Hoonah schools, where students spoke only Tlingit and had a translator for the parents in attendance; or the Latseen Hoop Camps, where language learning is integrated into training for a sport popular among Southeast Alaska youth.

“Positive identity about being Native and speaking the language ... contribute to building healthy students,” Worl said. “When you feel good about yourself, about being Native, that helps.”

While the curriculum itself was designed through a process of trial and error, Worl said, the concept of culture and place-based education infused with heritage language learning was based on research, both of similar programs, like in Hawaii, and academic studies.

Cadiente-Nelson mentioned the studies and research of one professor in particular, who focused on Alaska Native and Native American student achievement.

The academics of culturally based education

Much of the discussion about student achievement and success is based on research from the late Kaagoowu William G. Demmert, who was a professor at Western Washington University, and John C. Towner, as well as some other contributors.

“There is a widespread, firm belief among Native American communities (American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians) and among professional Native educators that meaningful educational experiences require an appropriate language and cultural context. From their perspective, such context supports the traditions, knowledge, and language(s) of the community as a starting place for learning new knowledge,” reads the article “A Review of the Research Literature on the Influences of Culturally Based Education on the Academic Performance of Native American Students (2003).”

Though Nicole R. Bowman wrote in her article “Cultural Differences of Teaching and Learning: A Native American Perspective of Participating in Educational Systems and Organizations,” published in the American Indian Quarterly in Spring 2003, that there is a lack of data focusing on Native American and Alaska Native students, she and others have noted a positive impact when culturally relevant curriculum is employed in schools.

In response to disheartening statistics about Native American and Alaska Native students — that they experience some of the lowest graduation rates at the secondary level and the lowest persistence rates a post-secondary level, compared to other minority counterparts and white classmates — Bowman wrote that “it was suggested that Native American students needed educational institutions to engage in the following activities: individualized learning within the context of a community of learners, building cultural identity, building cultural capital, providing student-centered and experiential learning, making formal and informal academic integration, building a climate with a holistic approach across stakeholders and utilizing bicultural and culturally holistic approaches (citations available in original article).”

Positive cultural identity, which can be developed through Native language and cultural education, was linked to higher achievement in a 1995 study cited by Demmert and Towner.

Another positive aspect of Native language and cultural education in schools was an increased role played by local communities, parents and families.

“Necessarily, this sort of community involvement serves to strengthen home-school cooperative links and facilitates communication. Strong home-school links have been shown elsewhere to be highly correlated with effective schooling and student achievement,” reads the 2003 review of research by Demmert and Towner.

In these studies, as laid out in a 2006 report by Demmert, Towner and David Grissmer, there are six critical elements of culturally based education:

1. Recognition and use of Native American (American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian) languages as the language of instruction, as a bilingual approach to learning, or as a first or second language.

2. Pedagogy that stresses traditional cultural characteristics and adult-child interactions as the starting place for one’s education (mores that are currently practiced in the community, and which may differ community to community).

3. Pedagogy in which teaching strategies are congruent with the traditional culture as well as contemporary ways of knowing and learning (opportunities to observe, opportunities to practice, and opportunities to demonstrate skills).

4. Curriculum that is based on traditional culture, which recognizes the importance of Native spirituality, and places the education of young children in a contemporary context (e.g., use and understanding of the visual arts, legends, oral histories and fundamental beliefs of the community).

5. Strong Native community participation (including partnering with parents, elders, other community resources) in educating children and evident in the curriculum, planning and operation of school/community activities.

6. Knowledge and use of the social and political mores of the community.

Legislation meant to preserve and revitalize Native languages is meaningful, a message acknowledging the value and importance of indigenous culture, but it also plays a role in building the cultural capital that helps Native students to succeed. Alaska took a big step forward this year passing a bill that made 20 Alaska Native languages official, a move that many Alaska Native elders likely were amazed to see in their lifetime.

Cadiente-Nelson said her mother, Irene Cadiente, was punished at a young age for speaking Tlingit in school. In her 80s now, she has taught Tlingit language and culture at both Harborview Elementary School and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School.

“It was pretty profound to see this in her lifetime,” Cadiente-Nelson said.

To learn more about culture and place-based education in Juneau, in the schools and beyond, visit, and

• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at


  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback






Fri, 05/25/2018 - 10:12

Nature seminars start in June