The Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) has approximately 700 students from the 19 Pueblo Nations of New Mexico, the Navajo and Apache Nations, and other regional tribes. A 2012 survey showed that 80% of SFIS students wanted Native American (Native) language courses to be offered in their heritage language. With over 22 languages represented by the student body it seemed impossible for the school to fulfill this request. A shortage of language instructors meant that SFIS was only able to offer four Native language classes.
SFIS consulted with the Indigenous Language Institute to develop a framework that would allow the school to teach multiple languages. The result was the creation of a learner-driven, intergenerational Native language learning course called the Self-Study of American Indian Languages (SAIL). SFIS applied for a three year Native language Preservation and Maintenance grant with ANA to implement this course. They titled the project the Learner-Driven Language Course for Multiple Languages.
SAIL was taught as an afterschool language program that allowed students to study the language of their choice. Interested students recruited a language mentor, typically a family member or someone from their community, to help them complete the SAIL course. Students demonstrated their language skills in the form of a presentation at the end of the semester. The goals of the project were:
- To enroll 50 students in the afterschool program
- To recruit 50 language mentors to support the students
- To increase language proficiency by an average of one level each year among participating students
Twenty-two students enrolled in the afterschool program the first year. Students recruited mentors from their local communities. Mentors made themselves available to answer questions, participate in cultural and site-based educational events, and conducted an assessment of their students. SFIS provided trainings to show mentors how to conduct these assessments.
The students used a program that allowed them to track their progress and record new words and phrases. SFIS held an event called Language Celebrations at the end of each year. At this event, participating students would present to the student body and faculty on a topic or give a performance. Presentations often included a cultural component, such as a traditional food cooking demonstration or retelling a traditional story in their language. These presentations demonstrated their language acquisition.
The Learner-Driven Intergenerational Language Learning Course served 52 students by the end of the third year. All participants increased their language proficiency by at least one level. One mentor also went on to become a certified language instructor.
The master/apprentice relationships that developed between students and their mentors facilitated intergenerational exchanges, the transfer of culture and family values, and put a focus on the use of Native languages in the home. As one mentor said, “I was the mentor to my daughter, but I had to go to my mother and grandmother to confirm pronunciation and grammar. The project was a family affair. Now we talk to the children and Keres in the home”.