Hopi at crossroads of maintaining language for elected posts

POLACCA (AZ.) -- Hopi candidates move effortlessly between English and the tribe's languages as they present their case to voters from a high school auditorium.

Hopi at crossroads of maintaining language for elected posts

POLACCA (AZ.) -- Hopi candidates move effortlessly between English and the tribe's languages as they present their case to voters from a high school auditorium.

There are a mixture of native speakers and Hopis, who were subject to attacks at boarding schools that focused on assimilation, Hopis who fear being mocked if their language is not understood, and Hopis who are eager to learn.

Hopis must speak and understand Hopi to be considered for the Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma's or David Talayumptewa's position. In 2017, the rule that tribal constitutions require fluency was relaxed. Nuvangyaoma wants to remove language requirements for top leadership positions on the 2,500-square-mile (6,475-kilometer) reservation.

He claims that removing it would attract younger Hopis, who were once told to leave their homeland and get an education. Then they could return to their homeland to teach their people technology, engineering, and law, but not Hopi. It is made up of 12 villages located in Arizona's high desert. About half the 14,000 Hopis are enrolled on the reservation. It is surrounded entirely by the larger Navajo Nation.

Nuvangyaoma stated that "we're not going to ignore our culture or traditions" in an interview. To seek funding, there is competition at both the federal and state levels. We must be more proactive and alert.

Talayumptewa says the problem is not in the constitution, but in Nuvangyaoma’s leadership style. The solution is to foster a revival of the language that defines Hopis.

Talayumptewa stated that Nuvangyaoma was making a gamble. It will be an issue during the election. "I'm not backing down, and that's my wager."

David Talayumptewa (center) shakes hands with Jack Harding, a supporter, at a Saturday debate in Polacca.

Inevitably, the discussion about language's role within tribal politics turns into one about identity and cultural preservation, sustainability, and maintenance. Like other tribes, the Hopi have struggled to preserve their language, even as the U.S. tried to eliminate their culture and integrate them into white society.

Ada Curtis (65 years old) is a Hopi native who recalled her experiences with non-Natives teaching English to her. She also recalled the sickening feeling she felt when she got on the bus without knowing English and was scolded for speaking Hopi.

Several years back, the neighboring Navajo Nation was faced with a similar problem over language. A presidential candidate was disqualified for refusing to take a fluency exam. Voters on the largest Native American Reservation relaxed the requirements and eliminated the requirement that key leaders speak Navajo.

White Mountain Apache Tribe, in eastern Arizona, requires that its leader speak the tribe's language. Other tribes in Arizona, such as Pascua Yaqui and Hualapai, require their leaders to speak the tribe's language.

According to Dr. Sheilah Nicholas (or Qotsahonmana), a University of Arizona professor who hails from the Hopi village of Songoopavi, the trend toward English as the dominant language on the Hopi reservation has been happening for decades. In 2011, a U.S. Census Bureau report found that fewer than half-million Americans aged 5 and older spoke a Native American language at their homes.

A small number of Hopis live at the base First Mesa and speak Tewa. This language is more common among New Mexican pueblo tribes. The Hopi reservation includes the Village Of Oraibi, which is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in America, and dates back to around 1000 years.

Hopis sense of identity can be compromised when they live on a remote reservation and are unable to speak the language of the spiritual covenant with Maasaw, Qotsahonmana.

She said that focusing on speaking abilities alone will erase other forms of language.

Qotsahonmana said, "There are songs, teachings, and prayer." "All of these, if your are involved and engaged in them, you become Hopi."

Bernita Duwahoyeoma (whose Hopi name was Siwivensi) pointed out the sacrifices made over time to preserve the tribe's culture and language.

In 1865, nineteen Hopi men were held at Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco. They had refused to send their children to boarding school and instead imprisoned them. Hopis, who refused to be converted to Christianity by the Spanish, destroyed their own village to continue Hopi practices in 1701. Hopi men, women and children died, Siwivensi said.

She said, "It's all about our culture at stake." "It's as simple as language and here we are as a people. Which one of these candidates will be sincere, and listen to the people's hearts?

The winner of Thursday's nonpartisan election can not unilaterally change the 1934 Hopi constitution. However, he or she can influence a proposal through Tribal Council and make it available for public vote.

Hopi Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma and his son, Polacca (Arizona), leave the tribe's high-school on Saturday. 

Leilani Nish, who was a moderator of the debate but doesn't yet speak Hopi, stated that she would welcome an opportunity to include the youth.

The 19-year old college student said, "It's no free pass." "Anyone should be able learn the language, regardless of their ability. This way, you can speak Hopi to people when you are greeting them and talking to them. It is more respectful.

Nuvangyaoma (50) was a new face in Hopi politics, before he was elected to the four-year term. He was a firefighter and worked in finance. He also volunteered at the Hopi radio station. He served four terms for aggravated DUI, which he says helped him connect with Hopis struggling with substance abuse.

During Saturday's debate he frequently mentioned constitutional reform to give citizens more control over tribal government, to establish separation of powers, and to modernize it.

Talayumptewa is a retired U.S. Bureau of Education official aged 71 who has advocated for the creation of a single school district within the reservation. He stated that the tribal government must partner with small businesses, private industry, and reengage in language and culture.

In 2017, Nuvangyaoma defeated Talayumptewa. Clark Tenakhongva, the vice chairman candidate, and Craig Andrews are running on separate tickets. The participation rate is generally low.

Valaura Imus–Nahsonhoya gives her closing remarks during Saturday's debate in Polacca between Tim Nuvangyaoma (center) and David Talayumptewa (right), in Arizona.

During the debate at the school of Polacca, Nuvangyaoma, Talayumptewa asked questions about public safety, tribal sovereignty and illegal trash dumping. This school has enabled Hopis to receive a high school education in their own reservations. The Hopi word nahongvita, which is at the entrance, encourages students to dig deeply and remain strong.

The stage was decorated with baskets, gourds, and a colorful painting featuring Hopis in traditional costume and corn stalks.

Although they spoke English a lot, the candidates presented themselves in Hopi. Talayumptewa presented his plan to revive the language and included immersion programs towards the end of the debate. Nuvangyaoma called the talk empty and said that Talayumptewa, a three-term member of the education committee council, has plenty of time to implement change.

Deidra Honyumptewa (47), said that she left the debate feeling optimistic. Her family moved recently from Phoenix to Tewa, but they don't speak Hopi or Tewa.

She said, "There are a lot of highly educated individuals my age who are willing to step up and do what is necessary for our tribe, but that is still a barrier."

Updated Date: 10 November 2021, 12:03

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