Saving the last links to Native American culture

Saving the last links to Native American culture

(Calif.) Recognizing and preserving a record of California’s indigenous culture is at the heart of a new law that creates a specialized teaching credential for American Indian culture.

Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed AB 163, which requires the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, upon recommendation of a federally-recognized California tribe, to issue an American Indian language-culture credential.

Under the new law, a credential holder, who is not required to be a fully-licensed teacher, would be authorized to teach American Indian language or culture or both in all California public preschools and K-12 classrooms as well as in adult education courses.

“Our tribe is all too aware of the importance of not only preserving our language, but our culture as well,” Vincent Armenta, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, said in a statement. “The passage of this bill will allow educators throughout California to become credentialed in Native American culture and share our traditions with children who have never been exposed to Native American life.”

The state’s cultural heritage stems from the lifestyles and customs of some 300 pre-colonial tribal groups, whose numbers were decimated following the arrival of European settlers in the mid-1700s. Nearly obliterated along with these Native Americans were the languages and customs that defined their ways of life.

But descendants of the survivors have, in recent decades, fought to revive the spoken word and culture of their ancestors, succeeding in 2009 in convincing the Legislature to approve an American Indian language credential. AB 163, authored by Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, allows for the addition of the culture credential – official recognition of person’s knowledge of and ability to teach historically accurate American Indian tribal customs.

Under the law, each of California’s more than 100 recognized tribes is encouraged to develop its own written and oral assessments to determine whether an applicant is qualified to teach its language or culture, including his or her understanding of ceremonies and traditions, social institutions and relationships, holidays and festivals, health practices and traditions, patterns of work and leisure, and culinary traditions and practices. A tribe could then recommend that the teacher credentialing commission confer the credential upon a candidate who successfully completes the assessments.

A tribe recommending a candidate for an American Indian language-culture credential must also under the new law develop and administer a technical assistance program based on California Standards for the Teaching Profession.

According to a Senate analysis of AB 163, the technical assistance program is to be offered by teachers already credentialed in an American Indian language or culture who have three or more years of teaching experience. The program could include classroom observation and consultation, assistance in instructional planning and preparation, support in implementation and delivery of instruction, and other assistance intended to enhance the professional performance and development of the teacher.

To date, just 28 people hold one of California’s American Indian language credentials.

The bill was supported by several California tribes, including the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, whose territory falls within Williams’ Assembly district.

The signing of AB 163 comes on the heels of the tribe’s recent success of its own education programs. The preservation of its language, “Samala,” has become a model for successfully reinvigorating tribal languages and culture through dedicated programs.

The tribe released “The Samala-English Dictionary: A Guide to the Samala Language of the Ineseño Chumash People” in 2008. The 600-plus-page comprehensive dictionary was the result of a multi-year project and collaboration with Dr. Richard Applegate, a linguist who had studied the tribe’s language more than four decades ago when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. 

In 2013, the Santa Ynez Chumash began offering a Samala language program at its Education Center, one of 27 state-funded American Indian Education Centers in California. Students are now taught Samala words, sentence structure and pronunciation through the learning center’s after-school language program and tutoring.

Last year, the tribe partnered with The Family School, a pre-K-5 school in Los Olivos to bring Samala into the classrooms. Samala teachers have their own classroom where they teach language classes twice a week.  The language classes go beyond just teaching Samala – they also offer students a chance to immerse themselves in the culture of the Chumash, hunter-gatherers who were adept at fishing, basket weaving, bead-making, rock painting and herbalism. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s American Indian and Alaska Native population totaled 6.5 million as of July 1, 2014, up by 93,000, or 1.4 percent, since July 1, 2013.

California had the largest American Indian and Alaska Native population of any state in 2014 at 1.1 million, according to Census figures.

“[AB 163] is a reminder of California's incredible diversity, and the commission is excited to help safeguard our state's Native American heritage for future generations by placing qualified teachers of tribal culture in California's classrooms,” Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said in a statement.