Navajo Spellers Compete To Go To National Bee
On Thursday the Navajo Nation will hold its reservation-wide competition to decide who will represent the tribe at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Facing off against the best spellers across the country is a big deal no matter where you’re from. But if you’re raised on the Navajo Nation, where learning English is part of a painful past, competing in the Scripps bee is a major accomplishment.
Parfait — that was the winning word for 12-year-old Brianna Hosteen at the qualifying spelling bee in Tuba City last month. Brianna, a seventh grader at Tuba City Boarding School, is a big reader. She likes science fiction and mysteries best. Still, she hadn’t pictured herself in the Navajo Nation spelling finals.
“I just felt really happy,” Brianna Hosteen said. “I didn’t think I could make it that far.”
Brianna’s parents are both teachers. Her dad Leslie Hosteen, who is working on his graduate degree, said education is a top priority in their family.
“In our culture we have a quote that says, 'go, my son, go climb the ladder' — the ladder of education,” Leslie Hosteen said. “Education is the way out. It’s a way out of poverty.”
Half of the tribe is unemployed. A third still lacks electricity. Many families don’t have computers to download spelling words.
In addition to poverty, students also may be struggling with language.
Beginning in the late 1800s, during the American Indian Wars, thousands of Native children were forced to attend federally-run schools, where the main objective was to wipe out Native culture. Teachers beat children and washed their mouths out with soap for speaking their language.
It even happened here at the Tuba City Boarding School.
A century later, these brutal methods were shut down, but Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay said English has become the dominant language.
“When you come from this historical trauma impact on language use, it’s amazing any Native child is actually competing in the spelling bee just because of the historical nature of language loss and assimilation that has occurred,” Begay said.
“In our culture we have a quote that says, 'go, my son, go climb the ladder' — the ladder of education. Education is the way out. It’s a way out of poverty.”
Begay said the whole “kill the Indian, save the man” assimilation philosophy has had a mounting impact on the Navajo tribe, beginning with his parents.
“And then my generation we’ve been exposed in a variety of ways with the remnants of the boarding school era, where at times whole families now don’t speak Navajo or don’t speak native language because assimilation worked,” Begay said.
The majority of Native Americans in Arizona speak English at home, according to the latest U.S. census numbers. But Begay said the English spoken on the Navajo Nation is a different dialect.
“Navajo is a very verb-based language,” Begay said. “And English is very noun-based. It’s a difficult language to decipher. There comes a time when individuals and families intermingle Navajo and English together. And I’ve heard some folks say ‘Navalish.’”
As far as literacy goes, bilingual education professor Jennie DeGroat said language plays a key role.
“Our students, although they do speak English, they struggle a lot with academics,” DeGroat said.
DeGroat would like to see more bilingual Navajo children. Many Navajo parents either don’t know Navajo well enough, or they were ridiculed for speaking it, or they don’t see it as a useful language to pass on to their kids.
Recent studies show many benefits to bilingualism, not the least of which is a greater sense of cultural identity.
Seventh grader Brianna Hosteen is exposed to the Navajo language from her aunts and uncle, but English is the primary language spoken at home. And English is her sole focus, at least until the spelling bee.
“My fifth-grade teacher, I go to her class every day after school,” Breanna Hosteen said. “And I have a big binder full of words she helps me pronounce. And we just go and look them up.”
If Hosteen wins the Navajo spelling bee, she’ll go to Maryland for the Scripps National Spelling Bee at the end of May, where kids from all sorts of backgrounds will compete for the top speller trophy.