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PUEBLO DE COCHITI – Inside a mobile building, several children sit in a semicircle as their teacher raises four fingers to explain the connection between Easter and traditional spring dances.
The lesson is conducted entirely in the Keres dialect, spoken only by members of their pueblo.
Tribal leaders and others say this is a promising model for reviving indigenous languages that are in danger of extinction.
The Keres Children’s Learning Center is located in the center of Pueblo de Cochiti and serves 14 mixed-age students in elementary and middle school. The eldest is a 12-year-old boy who is an informal mentor and role model for younger children.
The small school started classes about 10 years ago after Trisha Mokin
o, who was a public school teacher at the time, decided that teaching the language his students were taking – just 45 minutes a day – was not enough to fully revive the language.
“I think that’s the question, ‘Should I put my daughter in my classroom?’ My answer was “no,” Mokino said in an interview.
She dropped out of elementary school and helped find an educational center based on the Montessori model that allowed young students to be baptized in Keres. The school also has an elementary classroom in Keres and English.
The center’s work, tribal leaders say, reflects Pueblo de Cochiti’s own values and culture – a sudden contrast to the discrimination of Native American students through forced assimilation efforts.
Pueblo de Cochiti Governor Phillip Quintana said it was interesting to see students speaking a language that was banned in school in the 1960s as a child.
“When you see how smart and intelligent those kids are to quickly understand it,” Quintana said, “I just know there is a future for us. These kids are learning our language.”
Early in the morning the children sat on the classroom floor around Bernard Suina, a language teacher.
He held the object in the shape of a cross and sometimes pointed with his left hand as he and the students in Keres were questioning the trade. The lesson, Mokino later explained, covered the traditional pueblo calendar and the way Easter was celebrated through spring dances.
Mokino said she doesn’t argue about the need for children to learn and speak English, but the learning center is turning Keres ’reputation through it into a classroom language. She also said it affects student behavior.
“Our language naturally perpetuates the value of being a society,” Mokino said, “not just thinking about himself.”
The Keres Children’s Education Center is a non-profit school funded mainly by private charitable foundations, in addition to a federal grant from Esther Martinez, named after the late Teva linguist and linguist Teva of Ohka Owinghe Pueblo.
The school operates from a 20-year-old mobile building inside Pueblo de Cochiti, a 40-minute drive southwest of Santa Fe.
“It’s about cultural survival.”
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Its supporters are seeking about $ 6 million in funding – through grants and donations – to build a building that will allow it to expand to infants, teens and older adults.
“Our children really deserve this institution, which we believe,” said Curtis Chavez, the center’s development director, in an interview.
Christine Sims, a professor at the University of New Mexico who has experience in teaching linguistics and education of American Indians, describes the Keres Center as a “promising model for how we can support the development of native languages very early on”.
A similar baptism program, he said, is ongoing for some students at James Pueblo.
“To appreciate the uniqueness of these languages that exist in New Mexico,” Sims said, “is something our state needs to recognize and of course our legislature needs to understand more fully. We are one of the very few states in the United States where these languages still exist. “
In fact, New Mexico is the only place where some languages are spoken.
State Representative Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said the Keres Children’s Learning Center is a fantastic example of what can be done in other Pueblo, many of which already offer less formal language training for young people.
His 2-year-old son, he said, is now returning from day care in Sandia Pueblo and recognizing and repeating words in Tiva, the language of Pueblo.
Lente said it is important that “our language and culture are taught by our own people, to our own people.”