Families in more than half of Native American homes in Arizona now speak only English at home, not the Navajo language according to new numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.
American Community Survey data covering 2011-2015 showed that 53 percent of people who identified as American Indian in the state said they speak only English at home, up from 49 percent in the previous five-year survey.
The increase comes despite efforts by tribes to keep their cultures and their languages alive, through immersion schools and tribal programs. But people involved in those programs said were not surprised by the numbers, which follow generations of government antagonism toward Native culture and language.
“We see students that come in with little or no language skills. So that obviously tells us that there is little or no Navajo spoken in the home,” said Audra Platero, principal of Tsehootsooi Diné Bi’ Olta’, a language-immersion school in Fort Defiance.
Navajo Schools Superintendent Tommy Lewis said that while some believe the Navajo language should be taught at home, schools have little choice.
“The problem is that our parents are young, many of them are young, they themselves don’t know the language,” Lewis said. “It seems that schools are beginning to be the only outlet through which we can assist and revitalize the language.”
Lewis said that if something doesn’t change, “we can lose it (the language) in 25 years and that’s a real concern.” He blames “the media, through music, through many other things that I think has affected our children from not learning Navajo as their primary language.”
“This goes back to many years of failures though federal policy where the intent of the federal government was to colonize us, to get us away from our language and culture so that we can be a part of the melting pot and they’ve done that through many avenues: through funding, through policy, through programs and so forth,” Lewis said.