• October 31, 2014

On the Reservation, Balancing Literacy and the Oral Tradition

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Good Silences, Bad Silences, Unforgivable Silences

Dave Cutler for the Chronicle

I have been teaching at the Navajo Nation's Diné College for 22 years—five at one of two main campuses and 17 at a remote branch campus in Crownpoint, N.M., where I went following my retirement after 30 years as an English professor at Allegheny College. For me it continues to be a humbling experience. Throughout my academic career, I have made a point of teaching beginning composition in addition to leading upper-level literature courses and doing scholarly writing. So I welcomed the chance to join the faculty in a Navajo community and watch a diverse body of students learn to recognize and articulate ideas based on their unique tribal identity.

The obstacles are real, but so are the rewards. In this learning environment, some elders have declared teachers the enemy, the cultural divide can take a well-meaning outsider by surprise, and the joy of learning occurs more readily with an uncle stalking an elk or at the loom with a grandmother than in a classroom. Here, kinship ties matter far more than student-teacher relationships, book learning relates more to survival than to enrichment, and knowledge has traditionally been passed along in the ceremonial hogan or with sacred sheep in the corral, not in a classroom.

It is also a community where hospitality, good humor, and open-minded curiosity prevail. But all of that arises indigenously from a learning style foreign to outsiders, rooted in a defining creation mythology.

Awareness of that tradition is key to advancing the literacy that tribal students need if they are to pass comfortably between two cultures without relinquishing a proud heritage. My perpetual love affair with the English language intensifies as I refine my pedagogical strategies. They might be boiled down to five convictions I have developed during my years teaching on the reservation. These convictions range from the speculative to the practical. They overlap, they remain tentative, and they invite possible application into the educational mainstream:

1. The medium of print is fundamental. Together with reading, learning to write remains fundamental both on and off the reservation, even as electronic media supplant print. Becoming literate remains an initiation into the written record as the first learned discipline and is basic to all others.

2. Students should be ushered by the same professor through an entire course sequence. I work at a small tribal campus where enrollment hovers around 100 and, at most, two faculty members teach English courses. I frequently enroll the same students in a cycle of two developmental reading courses, two pre-composition courses, and English 101 and 102. I may even teach a fiction-writing course. Always having considered myself something of a generalist, I enjoy the arrangement. Trust develops early, and progress and problems alike are easily observed without formal assessment. Such sequencing may be of special value at a small tribal college, but I wonder if it wouldn't help a variety of students transitioning to college settings.

3. Grammar matters, because language is a system. Whatever their native language, and whatever dialect students bring to the classroom, they have gained mastery of at least one. They just don't necessarily realize that, which isolates them from applying the tools needed to make the transition to print as readers and writers. Generally, my students come to me without knowing about nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, let alone broader grammatical concepts. But standard written English remains the lingua franca of the educated, in the job marketplace and in society generally, so that's what I teach.

4. Predication is the starting point. On the premise that each sentence is a mental exercise in itself, I first stress syntax at its most basic level, emphasizing that verbal communication in every language begins with the coupling of a subject and a verb, or what I call predication. In a cultural setting where conceiving children is paramount, I go so far as to call subjects male and verbs female and the resulting clause their living offspring.

Likewise, a compound or complex sentence assumes the characteristics of extended kinship, just as a paragraph resembles a clan. At all levels in the sequence of composition courses I teach, I spend time focusing first on individual sentences, whether those that students construct or ones they read, to show how predication units allow sentences to become nuclear families initially, then extended ones, and how easily that expansion works or can slip out of control.

In written English, each clause is to be as carefully crafted as turquoise inlay as it takes its proper place in forging a silver bracelet. Recognizing syntactic boundaries offers a way to see the broader relationship between sentences­—those that generalize, and those that amplify or illustrate. Mastering such fundamentals in short essays comes before developing a full and coherent argument.

5. Successful teaching is designed in a cultural context. At Crownpoint, reading matters as much as writing, so I coordinate the two with great care in a community whose ancient traditions and folkways I respect. It is also a community whose language has had an alphabet for less than a century. Governing my pedagogy is a basic Navajo premise identified in the college's mission statement as Sa'ah Naagháí Bik'eh Hózhóón, which translates literally as "long life happiness" but means much more.

Embedded in its own creation mythology and richly complex in a way that some people would consider ecologically relevant, the concept aligns the four cardinal directions with the four seasons, four sacred bordering mountains, and four stages in a human life. It also applies to four corresponding steps in undertaking any task, whether overseeing a ceremonial sand painting, mounting a warp on a loom, butchering a sheep, or draining the crankcase in an old Ford Ranger. They are, in careful succession, nitsáhákees, or thinking; nahat'á, or planning; iiná, or execution; and siihasin, or perfecting.

My familiarity with that process governs how every assignment should be undertaken. Writing an essay is a four-phase process, from thinking to careful revision. Students may never have worked with a lexicon, examined a table of contents, read an introduction, noticed chapter headings, or employed an index in fashioning a reading strategy, so vocabulary and use of a dictionary are key.

It all begins with recognizing one's own cognitive Navajo self. For students the result might be a research paper on how a woman survived pregnancy during the Navajo incarceration at Fort Sumner in the 1860s, or on the treaty that allowed them to return at last to their sacred homeland. For me it adds to the continuing pleasure of learning from those I have come to teach.

Paul G. Zolbrod is an adjunct instructor in arts and humanities at the Crownpoint, N.M., campus of the Navajo Nation's Diné College.

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