Native American Culture and Language

By Allison, Sherry R.; Vining, Christine Begay | Bilingual Review, January-August 1999 | Go to article overview
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Native American Culture and Language

Allison, Sherry R., Vining, Christine Begay, Bilingual Review



Fifty-three years ago a Navajo child was born on the Navajo Nation. One of six children, Ben was the third child born into a family with strong ties to the Navajo way of life, culturally and linguistically. At the age of three, Ben became blind. This unfortunate accident forever changed Ben's life.

"I was away from home nine months out of the year to attend school from first through twelfth grade. When I returned home to my family after the first year, I had lost command of the Navajo language! I couldn't communicate with my mother without my older brother interpreting for us." This comment comes from an individual who was taken at a very young age from all that he was familiar with, including his family, home, native language, and culture, to receive "appropriate' services. Ben has come full circle to share his story. This chapter will highlight Ben's experiences to depict the tragedy that can occur when culture and language are not taken into consideration. Sadly, due to limited resources, on and near reservation communities, disabled Native American individuals of all ages continue to be placed in off-reservation programs to receive services.

This chapter will discuss issues concerning culture and language of Native Americans and Alaska natives, and their considerations of service delivery for native children with special educational needs. However, to deliver services, one must first understand the Native people as a whole and the diversities within each community. This chapter will therefore provide a portrait of the Native American people. As Native people, we are often reminded that to know where we are going we must first know who we are and where we have come from. Our past is our future.

Ben's Story

"I became blind, as near as I can guess, at about the age of three. There is some confusion as to the cause of my visual impairment. Because of my young age, I too am not certain as to how things happened. There are two versions: mine and my family's.

"Family version: I was standing with my aunt on an earthen dike looking over a pond of water. I waded into the pond and pulled out some items. Later that afternoon, I went back to our hogan and went to sleep. That evening, someone tried to wake me up, but I didn't want to get up. I was crying and my mom said that 'maybe his legs are aching--he was walking in the rainwater. Let him sleep.' The next morning when I woke up my eyelids were completely caked over with sleep covering the entire socket and I couldn't open my eyes! My mom washed my face of all the sleep, but I had no sight! Because this had happened the day after it had rained and I had walked in the pond of rainwater which may have been from hail, the belief was that I needed some Navajo ceremonies to be performed by my grandfather who was a medicine man. I have no idea of the numbers and types of ceremonies performed on me, but I know that the Lightning Way and Wind Way ceremonies were done many times--even into my late teen years.

"On the other hand, my personal recollection and belief of the cause of my blindness seems to be more plausible, at least to me. On a trip into Gallup, my mom had picked up a can while passing by the city's refuse yard. On this particular day, I remember standing by my mom's side, clinging to her skirt as she tried to build a fire. She was pouring some fluid from the can that she had picked up. She made several attempts to start the fire, each time dousing the pile of wood chips with more fluid from the can, with the last attempt causing the flames to leap into the can, which then exploded! From what I remember, I felt something spray my face, and I ran out and said something to my sister about washing my face; and she said nothing had happened to me, but my mother's hair and skirt were on fire! I can't determine how long it was between the time of the explosion and the time I lost my sight.

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