Navajo Nation President Albert Hale has signed an executive order requiring that Head Start programs on the reservation teach the Navajo language before English.
"We are always talking about our children losing the language and the inability of our elderly to communicate with youth," said Hale, who signed the order this week."This is a step forward saying, `Enough of the talk, let's do something about this,' " Hale said.
The tribal president said he remembers being sent to the principal's office for speaking Navajo at an elementary school. "I specifically recall one teacher saying to me, `You guys lost the war. You are now in an English-speaking country so you speak the language,' " he said.
His executive order stems from the Navajo Nation Council's 1984 policy that the traditional language be available at all grade levels in all schools serving the Navajo Nation.
The law was sound, but public and Bureau of Indian Affairs school systems were reluctant to comply, citing state and federal curriculum standards, Hale said.
"The only place I saw where the Navajo Nation had some control, some say on the curriculum, is the Head Start program," Hale said. "But really, this is where this type of policy should start. It's like planting the seed which will continue to grow if one takes care of it. The Head Start children are the seed of the Navajo Nation."
Last year, there were 3,812 Navajo students in 184 Head Start classrooms on the reservation. Tribal education officials expect even more to enroll this fall, when the executive order takes effect.
Albert Johnson, administrative officer for the Navajo Head Start Program, applauded the decision.