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Know the West

Navajo spoken here

  Navajo spoken here

When Albert Hale was in grade school, a teacher reprimanded him for speaking Navajo, saying, "You guys lost the war. You are now in an English-speaking country, so you speak the language," Hale told the Salt Lake Tribune. Hale, now president of the Navajo Nation, wants to make sure a cultural blackout doesn't happen to pre-schoolers. His recent executive order requires Head Start programs on the nation's largest reservation to teach Navajo before English.

This fall, 3,898 3- to 5-year-olds face a new curriculum based on oral tradition and Navajo philosophies of learning, says Albert Johnson, administrator for the Navajo Head Start Program. About half of the youngsters come from Navajo-speaking homes. By instilling a strong self-image at a young age, Head Start will produce more serious students, Johnson believes.

A teacher at one of the tribe's Head Start schools warns that any change will be slow in English-dominated towns. "There may be an executive order, but when I talk to the children in Navajo, they just ignore me and walk on by." Christian parents are also concerned, says Juanita Brooks, a parent and Head Start secretary. "It's the culture part parents don't like. First they teach the language and the next thing you know is that the children are being taught the Navajo religion."

*Heather Abel