Punished For Speaking My Language

Infraction – I spoke my Indian Language

“You have to listen to a fluent speaker in the language for 2,000 hours, and you will then understand about 95% of what that person is saying. After 6,000 hours of being totally immersed in the language, you are functionally bilingual. At 12,000 hours, you would be a fluent speaker. It’s a long journey that depends on the individuals and how motivated and committed they are.” Tribal College Journal, Janine Pease, Language Revitalization at Tribal Colleges and Universities: Overviews, Perspectives, and Profiles, 1993-2018

As a child, age 9 in the 4th grade, I was a fluent Hopi speaker at a child’s level of speaking. I had yet to learn the adult skill level of speaking and communication. I attended the Hopi Day School and we were prohibited from speaking Hopi. There was a long, sterile hallway with double doors at the far end. At the end of the school day, I raced to run out those doors because it meant freedom. Freedom to speak Hopi without punishment. I had no choice. My 100+-year-old grandmother could only speak and understand Hopi. Everything I knew and learned about life was through her, so our communications were in one language only. I lived a double life. 

Today, we know that the U.S. Government policies of erasing the Hopi language were flawed and racist. Many children were punished, abused, shamed, abducted and traumatized under this harsh policy. Hopi adults and grand parents who suffered under this type of school system are struggling to maintain and teach the new generations to speak Hopi. It is difficult to overcome the post-traumatic effects of school systems that were intended to erase our identities.

Linguists theorize that the root of the Hopi language is a Uto-Aztecan “isolate”. It means the experts do not know the origin of our language. The Hopi people know. The Hopi language is our birthright. There is no other language similar to it in the world. The gift of language is sacred. It has a purpose. On the 20th day of an infant’s birth, this purpose is recited in the Hopi birthing ceremony. Today, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provides protection of the communal ownership of our language.

Research has been conducted on the loss of the Hopi language by the Hopi people. In 1990, a language survey found that 100% (age 60 or older), 84% (age 40 – 59), and 50% (age 20 – 39) were fluent speakers. In this year of the Covid pandemic, many of these elders have passed on. This creates a great risk of the loss of Hopi language fluency and knowledge for the next generation. 

Changes are slowly taking place in Hopi language studies. The Hopi High School now offers Hopi language speaking classes. The Hopi School provides a Hopi language curriculum for preschool age groups. Fluent Hopi speakers are developing books and teaching tools. The Hopi Tribe has developed a formal language policy and certification for teachers. Laverne Masayesva, a Hopi linguist, is a pioneer in the Hopi language studies. The Hopi Dictionary, 1998, prevents further loss of our language. However, it is a consensus of the community that the Hopi language should be taught in the home. 

I have hope that if immersion in a language measured by 12,000 hours can insure language fluency protection for adults and children, we can do it. No longer does a child have to stand in the corner in shame, disgraced, abused and ostracized because he/she speaks the Hopi language.

All fluent speakers of an indigenous language must share their gifts and work harder to pass on our birthright of language to children.

You can help by donating funds to Hopi Nonprofits who are striving to protect and preserve the Hopi language.

Hopi Cultural Teachings

Hopi Tutuqaiki – Link:  Donate to Hopi School Inc DBA Hopitutuqaiki

Hopi Mesa Media – mesamedia.org

Hopi Foundation – hopifoundation.org


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4 Comments on “Punished For Speaking My Language

  1. I experienced being put in a closet and brown soap put in my mouth at Moenkopi Day School. I stayed in that closet for a long time, in the dark, with the door closed. I also interpreted the words in the Life Magazine with the world war pictures to my grandmother. At that time, my two uncles were fighting the Japanese and my grandmother would pray for their safe return every day.

    When I first started school at Emerson Elementary School in Flagstaff, my mother would go to class with me and interpret English into Hopi so I could understand the teacher. Somehow I learned to speak English. Many Hopis of my age went through punishment for speaking Hopi. Now we are teaching our children and grandchildren Hopi and Tewa language on Zoom. My goal is to have them talking a little by the end of this year.

    Be Well, Be Safe, Warm Regards Sakhongvaiya

    Leon A. Nuvayestewa Sr.

    “Please meet me at a place where serenity, happiness, warmth and hope exist, to share our inner feelings.”

  2. My heart aches reading these truths. Thank you for sharing . The world needs to hear. I will do all I can to help support the teaching and learning of your beautiful languages and cultures. Usqwali for all you do.

  3. So sad to think of all those traumatized children and parents!

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