Bilingual Students

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Nixya’awii Community School senior Susie Patrick is one of eight students this year who were the first high school students to receive the Oregon Seal of Biliteracy in a Native language. (Photo courtesy of Susie Patrick)

Susie Patrick was scared. The senior would be the first Nixya’awii Community School student to take the Umatilla test for the Oregon Seal of Biliteracy. She couldn’t ask anyone else what to expect.

“I was so nervous to let down my community if I didn’t pass the test,” she said. “Without our language, we wouldn’t be who we are.”

Patrick passed the two-hour test administered by a tribal elder in mid-March, one of the first eight Oregon high school students to earn the honor in a Native language.

The Oregon Seal of Biliteracy recognizes the hard work of students who have achieved a high level of proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking in a language in addition to English. For many students, especially from traditionally marginalized populations, it also serves as an official notification that students’ cultures and communities are valued.

Nixya’awii Community School, a Pendleton School District charter school on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, awarded four seals. Pendleton High School also awarded a seal for Nez Perce, and the Willamina Middle and High School near the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Reservation awarded three for Chinuk Wawa.

The Seal of Biliteracy started in California in 2011, and 39 states have adopted it. Oregon awarded its first seals in 2015, and 46 school districts, two charter schools, one private school and a community college offered the award as of 2018-19. Last school year, 2,727 students earned the seal, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

ODE determines the criteria, but for Native languages, ODE lets the tribes determine the assessments.

Several schools offer Native language courses, and ODE has been working with the tribes to open the seal to them. Chemeketa Community College students have been able to earn the seal in “heritage languages” for three years.

The student recognition holds special significance for generations of Native Americans who lost their tribal languages under the weight of government policies and societal pressures. Beginning in the late 1800s, many Native American families were forced to send their children to boarding schools run by the government and churches. Others chose the schools because there were no schools available on the reservations.

The boarding schools tried to eliminate the Native American way of life, according to the National Museum of the American Indian Education Office. Students had to cut their hair, give up traditional dress and customs, even take on Western names, and they were punished for speaking their languages.

Native Americans did not gain the right to refuse placement of their children in off-reservation boarding schools until 1978, according to the American Indian Relief Council, although some boarding schools remain.

For many Native Americans, the shift to celebrate Native American language proficiency symbolizes changing local education opportunities.

Patrick’s father, Toby, was never able to study his elders’ languages. He recalls feeling divided between the worlds of his tribal community and his Pendleton school. He sees his daughter’s language accomplishment as a bridge between those worlds.

“It’s one of the coolest things that’s happened in history for Natives,” Toby Patrick said. “They’re acknowledging the fact that Native Americans are still here.”

Pendleton High School’s graduation ceremony Saturday included a speech by senior Seth Scott in Nez Perce. He is the first Pendleton High student to earn the Seal of Biliteracy.

Scott said he studied about 30 minutes a day with Kim Minthorn, a Pendleton High School teacher and tribal employee.

“Most Native languages you can’t really pull up on the Internet,” he said. “You have to get with someone who actually knows the language.”

The Pendleton School District wants to work with the tribes to encourage its Native students, said school board member Debbie McBee.

The district has included Native languages more in recent years, for instance using Native words for bus names and school signs. The biliteracy seal takes that support and recognition to a new level, McBee said.

“We’re on the right path,” said Pendleton Special Programs Director Julie Smith. “We can’t revitalize the language as a school district. We can partner with the tribe.”

The Umatilla’s education department translated the curriculum from a Salish program because it’s difficult to find Native language teaching materials.

Gretchen Kern, tribal linguist for the Umatilla, said the seal motivates students to take the language courses as well as legitimizes the language program in the eyes of the state.

Willamina School District joined the program this year and awarded the seal to three students who demonstrated their proficiency in Chinuk Wawa, a language of the Grand Ronde. Kailiyah Krehbiel, Jordan Reyes and Kaleb Reid graduated last spring but were recognized this year.

Kathy Cole, a Grand Ronde tribal employee, has taught a high school course in Chinuk Wawa that includes tribal history and culture for more than 10 years.

Cole is passionate about her language class. She was not able to learn her language as a child, but she jumped at the chance to study it when she began working for the tribe.

Cole said she always points out to her students that their ancestors were punished in school for speaking their languages and now students can take a class and earn credit in a Native language.

School districts apply to offer the seal and collect data on participants, and they do not have to offer classes in a language. Students receive a seal on their diploma and a note on their transcripts, and schools also sometimes present special cords or medals at graduation.

English and Spanish are nearly equal as the two most-common primary languages of recipients. Of the 38 languages assessed, three-quarters were for Spanish, with Chinese and French a distant second and third in 2018-19. Nearly 400 recipients self-identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, with Spanish by far the most common primary and partner language.

Christina Kaltsukis earned the seal in Umatilla along with Patrick, Lily Picard and Joseph Simon at Nixya’awii Community School. She is part of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, but her grandmother’s side is Umatilla.

While studying, she would practice with her grandmother, but her grandmother lost some of her language when she was in boarding school. She said her grandmother was happy Kaltsukis could learn Umatilla without getting in trouble.

“For me, it was a big step into my life and into my culture,” Kaltsukis said.

She said the seal motivated her and her fellow students to study hard.

Kaltsukis wants to teach Umatilla to others.

“On the Yakama Reservation, the language is diminishing,” she said. “Without the language, I feel that would be a loss to my soul and a part of who I am that I would never know.”

- Jake Arnold, OSBA