The bottom line: preserving Pacific cultures through language conservation


Of Utah’s 38,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, 44 percent report speaking a language other than English at home. The figures are even higher in Polynesian families, with 45 percent of Utah Samoans and 68 percent of Utah Tongans reporting use of at least two household languages.

But according to Marianna Di Paolo, a professor of sociolinguistics and anthropology at the University of Utah, most immigrant families will lose their language of national origin within three generations. Although little research has been done on language attrition in Pacific Islanders — Di Paolo and her colleague Adrian Bell are some of the first to research Tongan language use in American immigrant communities — the standard seems to hold as true for Polynesian languages as it does for more researched languages like Spanish and Italian.

“The norm is loss in three generations,” Di Paolo said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t mean it has to be that way, but that’s the norm.”

Marianna Di Paolo

Anthropologist Marianna Di Paolo is one of the first researchers to study Tongan language use in the U.S.

Di Paolo explained that language loss frequently occurs as a byproduct of assimilation. First-generation immigrants, who arrive in the United States with varying levels of English proficiency, tend to use their language of national origin in the home, so children born to immigrants often learn their ancestral languages before or alongside English. However, most bilingual children go on to attend primarily English-speaking schools full of primarily English-speaking students.

“The children start using English primarily with their peers, so who are they going to marry? People who are also using English with their peers,” Di Paolo said. “English will become the household language of the second generation, the generation that is born and raised here.”

This means that third-generation Pacific Islanders born into English-speaking households are far less likely to speak and understand their ancestral languages than their older family members.

“If English becomes the language of the home, it is very likely that the grandchildren of immigrants will shift completely to English, or only use Samoan when talking with a grandparent, or understand Samoan but not speak it,” Di Paolo said. “In three generations, you have moved from a nearly-monolingual Samoan-speaking family to a nearly-monolingual English-speaking family.”

Marianna Di Paolo

Much of Di Paolo’s research focuses on recording and revitalizing immigrant and indigenous languages.

Heritage languages are lost even more quickly when first-generation parents use English in the home or choose not to teach their children their ancestral languages. Sisi Muti, who teaches Tongan language at Pacific Heritage Academy in Salt Lake City, said she sees this frequently in her students’ families.

“They moved to America to learn English, not to perpetuate Tongan,” Muti said in a telephone conversation. “That’s why they’re here — they want their kids to learn English well.”

But Muti believes that learning a heritage language can be a valuable experience for Polynesian children, grounding them in their culture of origin and giving them a sense of identity.

“Losing the language is the beginning of losing a culture,” she said. “Even here in America, it is important that they know their identity and know who they are.”

Muti said educating immigrant parents on the link between language and identity development is critical to preserving Polynesian languages in Utah’s Pacific Islander communities.

Di Paolo agreed, noting a long-standing history of misinformation about the harms and benefits of learning two languages as a child.

“Educators have misinformed parents about bilingualism, saying that learning two languages in early childhood actually harms children. It absolutely does not,” Di Paolo said. “It improves a positive sense of identity and it improves cognitive development.”

Di Paolo said families who continue to use their language of national origin in the home stand a much better chance of retaining their language beyond the three-generation average, but may still face other challenges.

“That supports it in the home, but it isn’t probably, in the long run, the only support that the language will need,” she said. “It is incumbent on some other part of society to create some other situation where language can be used.”

These “other situations” are known as domains: sociocultural settings in which languages can be used. Along with home and school, possible domains include work, church and government settings. In a viable domain, the use of any given language is not suppressed; in an optimal domain, it is facilitated and encouraged.

“Keeping the heritage language alive means that there have to be places for people to use the language and have pride as they’re using the language,” Di Paolo said. “The more domains that are possible for the language to be used, the more likely it is that Samoan will persist.”

While not immigrants, the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand have seen great success in revitalizing their ancestral language, Te Reo Maori, in part due to its recent reintroduction into school and government settings throughout that country. Curleen Pfeiffer, a Utah educator and member of the Navajo Nation, believes the Maori people’s techniques for language preservation may have transpacific significance here in Utah.

To date, Pfeiffer has led four groups of Native Utahns across the ocean to study language preservation in New Zealand. The trips started as general cultural exchanges, but took on a new focus after Pfeiffer was touched by the value the Maori place on their language.

“The importance of language started really hitting me, and I turned my purposes totally around to language specifically,” Pfeiffer said in an interview at the American Indian Resource Center. “I really wanted to help the tribes of Utah see and understand for themselves how language is vitally important for our culture to remain alive.”

Pfeiffer brings Native students, educators and tribal leaders to New Zealand to study Te Ataarangi, a Maori teaching method that claims to have helped more than 50,000 people learn Te Reo. Pfeiffer has adapted Te Ataarangi to teach Dine, the Navajo language, and hopes to emulate the Maoris’ success in her own linguistic community.

Pfeiffer also hopes the students who visit New Zealand with her will understand the cultural significance of their own languages and be inspired to advocate for their preservation.

“Language is the bottom line,” Pfeiffer said. “Just like reading is the bottom line for education, language is the bottom line for culture. And if we want to keep our culture, we’ve got to do something. We can’t just sit back and let it fade away.”

University of Utah students build house of dreams


On the Navajo Reservation in southern Utah, Suzie Whitehorse lives with her four children in a Hogan, a traditional American Indian-style home.

The 44-year-old woman managed to escape with her children from an alcoholic husband but can’t find a job and does all her cooking and cleaning in the 15-foot wide dome-shaped hut. She is cramped in there with beds, a small stove and refrigerator.

However, thanks to the work of 18 graduate students from the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning, Whitehorse will be getting a home for herself and her four children.

The students signed up for the DesignBuildBLUFF program that was organized by architecture professor Hank Louis in 2001.

Louis set up the program to give graduate students hands-on experience with designing and building a home, as well as help them give back to the community.

The students spent fall semester picking a family that lives on the Navajo Reservation near Bluff, Utah, and began designing a home for them.

After several interviews, the students chose Whitehorse as the 2008-09 recipient.

“What separated Suzie from all the candidates was her and her family’s living situation,” said Sean Baron, a DesignBuildBLUFF student. “It was far worse than the others, and it was for this reason that she was the main focus of our roundtable discussion about which family to build for. “

At the end of November 2008, the students paired off into groups and presented blueprints and design models of what they think the design should be.

Louis said one element many of the students are trying to incorporate into their design plans is parts of the Navajo culture, considering what kind of house Suzie would enjoy the most.

Christian Falazar, another DesignBuildBLUFF student, worked with two other students designing a possible house and tried to consider what Whitehorse wanted for living space.

“She definitely didn’t want a mud or dirt home like she has now, but I don’t think she wants something too modern,” Falazar said.

The students have an even more difficult task. Like a lot of the land on the Navajo Reservation that U graduate students build on, Whitehorse’s plot of land lacks water and most other utilities.

“We’re very fortunate that she has electricity,” said Mitch McComb, a former student of Louis’s who now works on the project as an assistant. “She has no sewage, heat [or] water. She has to haul water 30 to 40 miles away.”

To solve the utility problem, students have to think and design creatively to give Whitehorse a house that gives her water and heating in a natural way.

About three years ago, students in the program won an award from the American Institute of Architects in the western mountain region for their unique design on a house for Rosie Joe, a Navajo woman.

The house used a butterfly-roof design to capture and store water, as well as solar panels and heat-trapping materials to keep the house relatively warm through winter weather.

Students are considering a similar design for Whitehorse’s house while also trying to consider what she wants.

Graduate student Sean Baron and his teammate, Zack Tanner, decided to focus their design around the four elements — earth, wind, water and fire — which can represent healing in the Navajo culture.

Baron said they have also considered where Whitehorse wants to sleep and where the kitchen should be.

“She said she wanted her own room and a separate room for her boys, maybe upstairs in a loft,” Baron said.

Most of the students tried to separate the bedrooms from kitchen and a bathroom, and left the living room in the center so the family could congregate and enjoy the house together.

Louis said that many of the clients don’t want anything fancy or modern in their home, they want the simple things that many people take for granted.

“A [former client], Dora Benali, said that she would want shelves in her bathroom,” Louis said. “That’s the one thing she really wanted for her dream house.”

Louis said he’s excited his current students picked Whitehorse because of how bad her living conditions were. He said that in the past, students have chosen a hard-working person they can relate to who speaks fluent English.

Whitehorse, however, speaks little English so students will have to overcome that language barrier to communicate with her, Louis said.

The students are also beginning to realize “how spoiled we all are,” Louis said. By considering Whitehorse’s situation, students can appreciate the small things they take for granted, like indoor plumbing.

McComb said all students will move in January 2009 to a house about 40 miles away from Whitehorse’s plot of land in Bluff and stay there for two weeks at a time working on the house.

The students take a week off after that to stay with family or work back home near the U, but for the rest of that time they eat, sleep and work as a group to finish the house by May.

“Usually they’re not finished completely by the time the semester ends,” McComb said. “We’ll hire some of the students as interns to finish the house over the summer. There’s usually one or two who aren’t traveling and don’t have families they need to visit.”

As the months approach closer to May, the students will work up to 11 hours on the house trying to finish in time, and all of it for free, McComb said.

Students aren’t paid but instead pay for the DesignBuildBLUFF class they take as part of their graduate degree.

Louis said that despite the hours and labor, many students enjoy the work and bond with the family so much that they will occasionally return to check on the house they built.

“For the Rosie Joe house, the students came back from five years ago to ask her if there’s any maintenance issues that need to be taken care of,” Louis said. “As a group they’ll come back. It’s pretty amazing. That’s what keeps me going.”

And the program has the support of the Navajo Reservation and city councils in Bluff, Louis said.

Kenneth Maryboy, a commissioner for San Juan County, said Louis and the graduate students do amazing work.

“There are many things members of the community do every year for members of the Navajo Tribe, but the work the students accomplish is a bright hope,” he said.

He said the students come out every year to build a house for a family that needs it, without asking for any money in return.

The program is funded by various donations throughout the year. McComb said that not counting the free student labor, it costs about $60,000 to build a house every year.

“There’s a running joke that these homes cost $900,000 because of all the work students do,” he said.

For the students involved, knowing they can give Whitehorse that gift is more than enough payment.

“She’s such a sweet woman,” Falazar said. “We want to do this for her.”

American Indian mascots


The use of American Indian tribal names as mascots and team names is widespread across the sports world. From high school to college to professional athletics, the names and images of American Indians have, in some cases, been exploited for novelty use.

The Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians are just a few of the well-known sports teams that use American Indian tribe names and stereotypes.

The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media has been working for years to combat the trend of using tribal names and stereotypical names for mascots. The Coalition believes that not only are these names offensive, they also are harmful to native and non-native children. Images that represent Indians as savages and warriors teach youth that people are less than human.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association released a statement that stated it is the right of the university to choose whatever mascot it wants to represent its school. However, if that mascot is deemed hostile or abusive regarding race or national origin, the association will not allow that particular mascot to be visible at national championships. The ban of racially insensitive mascots went into effect Feb. 1, 2006. The decision to exclude offensive mascots from NCAA championships was made after the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee meet and redefined the boundaries.

Over the past 30 years about 30 schools were asked to reevaluate their use of American Indian imagery and name for mascot purposes. The schools then submitted a report to the NCAA. Those wishing to continue the use of the Indian name are now subject to the new NCAA policy that forbids their mascot’s presences at NCAA championships. The University of Utah is among the schools subject to that policy.

But there is support for the use of American Indian names and symbols. Fred Esplin, vice president of Institutional Advancement at the University of Utah, said the use of the Ute name was consented to by members of the Ute Indian Tribe. Tribal leaders agreed to have their name associated with the university as long as no imagery was used along with it, such as cartoon Indians and headdresses.

However, the road to this agreement was not simple. Until about the 1950s or 1960s, the university had used the name Running Redskins for its sports teams. Costumes and headdresses worn by cheerleaders accompanied this name. Conversations began with tribal leaders concerning the use of the Indian image, during which the tribe formally agreed to let their name be used, Esplin said.

Even with formal consent tension from the tribe relating to the insensitive way the Ute name was being portrayed continued, Esplin recalls. In 1984, he said an attempt was made to honor the Tribe in a seemingly sensitive way. A student, who was assumed to be of Ute Indian descent, was selected to don war paint and a headdress and ride bare-chested on a horse from one end of the football stadium to the other carrying a spear. This feeble attempt at honoring the Tribe was abandoned after one season, Esplin said.

The U was in need of a mascot that would be culturally sensitive and appeal to the masses. In 1986 the U formally adopted Swoop, the red tailed hawk, as its mascot. However, the Ute Tribe agreed to allow the use of the Ute name to continue. This agreement included that the U would not use any American Indian imagery, except for the drum and feathers logo, which Esplin said is slowly being phased out.

Since his involvement with the Ute tribe began in 1999, Esplin said he has met with tribal leaders many times about the use of the name. “The Ute Tribe has a sense of pride about being connected to the university through their name,” he said.

He acknowledges that not everyone on campus agrees with the use of the name, but says the decision was made by tribal leaders. If at anytime they are dissatisfied with how the name is portrayed, they have the right to ask the university to discontinue using the name.

Before coming to the U for graduate school, Debra Yazzie, a member of the Navajo Nation, hadn’t been concerned with the use of tribal names as mascots. Her attention was only drawn to it after a photo was published in the sports section of the Daily Utah Chronicle that depicted a racial remark made at a woman’s volleyball game.

In fall 2007, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah met to face off in a women’s volleyball game. Students on the BYU campus are allowed to bring dry-erase boards to games and write messages on them. At this particular match a female student wrote on her whiteboard an offensive phrase that resonated with Yazzie. A photographer from the Chronicle captured one of the offensive images in a photo that later ran in the sports section of the newspaper.

Yazzie said this is an example of why using the Ute name is a bad idea. People misrepresent the Utes and it leaves the Tribe open to cruel comments. But Esplin maintains that it is the right of the Ute Tribe to dictate how and when its name is used.

“It seems to me that other tribes may have a problem with the use of the Ute name, but the Utes themselves have approved it,” Esplin said.

More recently, students at the U sold T-shirts that depicted an American Indian roasting a horned frog over a fire. The image was of a cartoon character of a Ute and the horned frog, the mascot of Texas Christian University, a rival school. The shirts were sold on campus days leading up to football game on Nov. 6, 2008.

Amie Hammond, a U student and a member of the Ute Tribe, saw students on campus selling shirts on her way to class. She called Yazzie and other American Indian students, who asked the vendors to stop selling the shirts. The Indian students then explained to the vendors that the imagery was offensive and that in their culture the horned frog or toad was considered representative of their ancestors.

The students selling the shirts apologized to Yazzie and the rest of the Indian students but moved their operation to the tailgate lot located across campus. There, they were again confronted by a group of angry Indian students who requested that they be more sensitive and refrain from selling the shirts. Hammond said she wanted disciplinary action taken against the students for the misrepresentation of her people.

Esplin said that the students involved have been notified of their offensive behavior and have issued a sincere apology. He said he believes they honestly didn’t know they would offend anyone. Incidences like these are few and far between, he said. But when they do occur the university takes immediate action to correct the problems.

Esplin reiterated how proud the U is to be associated with the Tribe. “They have an honorable, rich tradition and we recognize that,” Esplin said.

American Indians are undervalued because of miseducation


  • Meet Nola Lodge and Forrest S. Cuch (slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode)

Many American Indians today say their culture and history have been lost. They are now fighting to restore truth to the curriculum.

For years, elementary school students have been taught that Columbus discovered a new land, America — a land of promise, a land of riches, a land of hope. But many American Indians do not find that promise, those riches or that hope. Instead, they reflect on the stories of their childhood education and cringe with feelings of hopelessness, confusion and displacement.

“The truth isn’t out there, you have to dig for it. … American Indians were always portrayed as in the way,” says Nola Lodge, professor of multicultural education at the University of Utah and a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin.

And marginalization for some creates privileges for others.

An article by Ruth Anne Olson titled, “White Privilege in Schools,” explains how today’s culture provides specific privileges to certain students. Olson lists many of these privileges, including, “My children take for granted that the color of any crayons, bandages, or other supplies in their classroom labeled ‘flesh’ will be similar to their own.” After listing several more of these privileges she writes, “My family never asked for these privileges; principals and teachers didn’t purposely create them for us; and, frankly neither they nor we have been consciously aware these privileges exist.” If the privileged students didn’t ask for the privileges, and the principals and teachers didn’t create them on purpose, and if no one has been consciously aware of the privileges, then why do they exist?

Lodge teaches classes on diversity so she is very aware of issues of privilege related to skin tone. She firmly believes that when children are taught early what difference is, their perceptions of who is valued changes. In addition, prejudice and stereotypes carry on into adulthood. She still experiences them today as a successful woman.

Lodge is helping to prepare many American Indian students begin their careers in education. It is not only important to get the truth about history out there, but to also get a variety of people teaching that history to help students understand difference at a young age, she says. When white students go to school they understand they can succeed. They see people just like themselves succeeding. The teachers know how to teach white students, they can relate. What about the other students? Children from different backgrounds learn differently and when they relate personally to their teacher, they succeed at a must faster rate.

“It should be K-12 students who should … accept that there is diversity. Difference is not change. This is why we need to change the curriculum,” Lodge says. She continues to tell a story from the Civil War, a subject commonly covered in history classes. When students learn about General Ulysses S. Grant they seldom learn that Ely Parker, his adjunct, his right-hand man, was a chief’s son and like Grant, an alumnus of West Point. They were equals in education. Their histories were equally important because they were both fighting for their country, for their land and for their beliefs. These small yet significant details are the ones left out of history books. These details are the ones that could give American Indian students, those fighting for recognition and truth, someone to emulate as they strive for success.

Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, is very concerned about the education of children. Cuch, a member of the Ute Tribe, wants them to understand the truth about American Indians, but knows they often hear very little about Indians in school. In a recent interview he quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, “Our democracy hinges upon an educated public.” Cuch explained that children are the future of the country. They are tomorrow’s leaders and when part of the history of their own country is omitted from history books, lessons and much needed education is left behind as well. He believes this knowledge is part of the identity of each student and without it some are getting lost.

“Without an education there is no identity, no foundation. If I am ashamed of my history or my people, if I am not part of my own culture, I am lost. If I am part of nothing then I lose that identity,” Cuch says. He believes that this identity is being taken away from all students today.

Lodge has also thought about her own identity and how the knowledge of the truth plays a part in it. She takes a different stand, however, saying, “[The truth] informs you about that identity. It doesn’t give you an identity.” Lodge understands that life and one’s own culture build who you are, and the knowledge acquired along the way adds to it.

The most important thing Lodge has learned through teaching multicultural education and American Indian education “is how much still needs to be done.” She knows there are ways to improve what is being taught in schools; she knows that with effort, the truth will get out there.

American Indians have a past that teaches all who are willing to learn. They hold the stories and the truths that history books have omitted. Cuch says his “original culture is hanging on, barely. But it is covered with layers and layers of scars.” Like Lodge, he knows that when the truth of American Indians is in the school curricula in Utah, those scars will fade and the culture that is slipping away will return and become stronger. “I am not hopeless,” Cuch says.

Preserving the Navajo language

  • Hear from the teacher of a Navajo-language class and her students (audio slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode)

According to the 2004 United States Census, 381,000 people age 5 or older speak a North American native language. Navajo is the most common with 178,014 speakers. The Census also reported that 28 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives speak a language other than English at home, but the percentage is dropping in some areas. This means that the number of Native American languages spoken at home is dropping and some languages are in danger of extinction.

Alex Griffin and Geoff Sink, two students in the intermediate Navajo-language class at the University of Utah, participated in a program offered by the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center that sends Navajo-language students to a reservation during spring break to stay with a Navajo family. Both Griffin and Sink went to Navajo Mountain, Utah, a small town on the border of Utah and Arizona. 

They noticed differences among age groups when it came to speaking the language..

“A lot of people who are old enough to be my grandparents only spoke Navajo, or if they spoke English it was very limited,” Griffin said. “The people who were old enough to be my parents spoke both equally well, although some were more comfortable with Navajo. Anyone my age and younger was kind of a mixed bag. There were some kids who spoke Navajo pretty well, but there were a lot who didn’t or they understood it but they couldn’t speak it.”

One woman Griffin met while on the reservation felt it important for her 3-year-old son to start learning Navajo. She decided to leave him with his grandmother before going to work so that he would have more exposure to the language.

Sharee Varela, a graduate student in the U’s Department of Languages and Literature who teaches Navajo, feels the reasons the language is not being passed on to the younger generations is because they go to live in the city where Navajo is not spoken. And on the reservation, most schools do not teach it at early ages.

“There are some bilingual schools that will teach children both English and Navajo,” she said.

One project that does this is the Puente de Hózhǭ revitalization project in Flagstaff, Ariz. This project focuses on teaching children both English and Navajo or Spanish and English, depending on the student. Varela said she also knows of other schools that do the same in Fort Defiance and Windowrock, Ariz., as well as in Shiprock, N.M.

However, Varela said some Navajos believe that schools shouldn’t waste their time teaching Navajo.

“My father is old-school and he believes that Navajo language should not be taught in school,” she said. “He believes that parents should be responsible for teaching their children the Navajo language.”

But she asks her father, “What about the other kids that want to learn? What if the parents speak Navajo but don’t really know how to read or write it? Then who teaches them [the children]?”

Varela believes the reason the Navajo language is possibly becoming endangered is a combination of these two ideas: parents not teaching it to their children and most teachers not teaching it in schools. She also blamed governmental actions. Both California and Arizona have English-only initiatives banning bilingual education for virtually all children learning English as a second language. Even students whose English is limited are prohibited from learning in any language other than English. Nevertheless, Varela said some schools in rural areas of Arizona continue using bilingual programs.

Hotki Miles, the former Miss Utah Navajo, also participates in the Navajo language class at the U. She decided to take the class to better connect with her culture and to communicate more easily with her grandparents and other relatives who speak Navajo. Miles’ mother is Navajo but her father is not. Her mother does not speak the language very well, so Miles never learned it growing up. While participating in Navajo cultural events such as Miss Utah Navajo, she was sometimes disappointed that she could not communicate with those who spoke only Navajo. She is excited to be able to understand and speak some Navajo with her relatives.

“My relatives don’t look at me anymore as a stupid kid that doesn’t know Navajo,” she said.

Because of the effort Miles has put into learning the language and her culture, she said the older generations are more accepting and respectful of her. Many times after speaking or performing at an event, some of the older Navajo women came up to her, congratulated her and call her “shideezhi,” which means little sister.

Varela has had other Navajo students, like Miles, who have taken her classes to learn Navajo in hopes of connecting with relatives and understanding their culture. Varela said older Navajos are always very happy when her students come to them and try speaking the language. Even if the students say something the wrong way or with the wrong accent, it still makes them happy that students are learning their native language. 

Many campus, community services available to American Indians


American Indians and anyone interested in learning more about Indian culture can visit the many centers in Salt Lake City and at the University of Utah campus.

Transitioning from high school to college or from one college to another can be a difficult process. Assisting in that transition is the American Indian Resource Center at the U. Becky McKean, an administrative assistant at AIRC, said staff work with different offices on campus to establish partnerships.

“We draw from each other,” McKean said.

Some of the groups working with the AIRC are academic, such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Others, like the Inter Tribal Student Association, focus on student life. The Center for Ethnic Student Affairs has within its office a Native American coordinator who advises students and helps with scholarships, McKean said.

She said this year, AIRC Director Beverly Fenton was able to get the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in-state tuition for its students.

“The Ute Mountain Utes are located in Colorado, but since they are part of the Ute Tribe they were granted in-state tuition thanks to Beverly’s work,” McKean said.

AIRC is located near the dorms in a house donated by Fort Douglas. McKean said that when the Fort downsized 15 years ago, the house was given to the American Indians.

AIRC encourages students to use the building as a meeting place for groups and activities and strengthens connections with the community. It also helps students get involved with internships and work-study programs.

McKean said they are trying to be active in bringing people into the center. Twice a week a writing tutor comes to the AIRC to assist students with papers and homework assignments and to help improve their writing, McKean said. The AIRC also has a computer lab available for students and McKean hopes to get a grant to purchase more computers.

“The goal of the Center is to act as a liaison between the U and tribal communities,” McKean said. The Center is currently working on developing a brochure and a Web site to advertise the available services throughout the community. McKean said she hopes to bring the community into the center. This fall, while visiting the U, tribal leaders from across Utah and neighboring states were welcomed into the Center. A potluck was also hosted which brought a sizeable crowd of students and faculty to the Center.

Other on-campus resources include the American West Center, which is working with the Utah Division of Indian Affairs to develop teaching guides for grade school children to inform and educate them on current issues and history of Utah’s American Indians. Also, the Center for American Indian Languages focuses on the study of indigenous languages.

The state of Utah gets its name from the Ute Tribe. Support for members of the Tribe and other American Indian tribes come from a variety of places.

A local resource available to tribal members is the Indian Walk-In Center.

Brenda Chambers, an employee and health specialist for the center, said in an e-mail that the purpose of the Walk-In Center is to support and provide wellness services to people with respect to values and heritage of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The Walk-In Center sees members from tribes all over Utah, including the Utes, Paiutes, Goshute, Shoshone and Navajo. Chambers said the Walk-In Center serves as a meeting place. In addition, anyone who wants to learn more about American Indians can gather at the Center and take advantage of the services and information available.

Chambers said the Center offers services in many different areas, including health services, counseling, community outreach, events and general assistance. Within each area different services are available to the community. For example, people seeking housing can take advantage of housing referral services. Children visiting the center can take part in the literacy project and attend leadership meetings.

A major issue for American Indians is health-related problems such as diabetes. The Walk-In Center offers nutrition information and presentations as well as screenings for diabetes. Health promotion and prevention is a big part of what the Walk-In Center does.

Supporting all aspects of native life is important, but it’s also important to inform non-native people as well. McKean said she hopes the resources available on and off campus will “help educate the community and bring us closer together.”

Adopting Native American children


Alpine residents Katherine Thompson, 43, and her husband Joseph, 48, were devastated when they found out they could not have children. After exploring several options, they decided to adopt. However, it took the couple more than five years to finally receive a child because of one major stipulation. The child had to be Native American. 

Native American adoption always has been a complex issue. In 1958, the Indian Adoption Project was created by the Child Welfare League of America and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to CWLA, the project placed Native American children with white foster and adoptive families. The project was part of a widespread ideal that Native American children needed to be “integrated” into white society.

According to a study conducted by the First Nations Orphan Association, as many as 68 percent of all Native American children  between 1941 and 1978 were placed in orphanages, boarding schools, foster homes, or were adopted at one point in their lives.  

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the act made Native American adoption more ethical. Since then, NICWA has worked to enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act and promote the rights of Native American families and tribes.

Today, thanks to efforts like the Indian Child Welfare Act, Native American adoption is much more ethical. However, it is yet to become mainstream. When the Thompsons wanted to adopt a Native child, they did not know where to start.

“Since we are Native American, we wanted a Native American child,” Katherine said. “However, adopting a full Native American child is very difficult.”

They initiated the adoption process in 1994, but could never seem to find any agencies that specialized in — or even knew anything about — Native American adoption. They worked with many national adoption agencies, but had no luck.

 “We could not find any information anywhere,” Katherine said. “Resources were just not out there.” 

When given the chance to adopt an African American child in 1997, the Thompsons decided not to go through with it because of cultural reasons.

“While we would certainly love a child of any race, we wanted a Native American child,” Katherine explained. “We wanted to be able to share our culture with our child and pass on those traditions. We didn’t feel we could do that with an African American child.”

Finally, in 1998, they discovered an adoption agency called the Cherokee Nation Adoption Program. The agency specializes in placing Cherokee children with adoptive parents. Katherine and Joseph, who are Navajo, were relieved to finally find an agency who could help them.

“Within nine months of finding [the agency] we adopted Isabel. We were thrilled,” Joseph said. “She is our joy.”

Today, Isabel is an 8-year-old third grader. Her elementary school teacher, Susan Jones, believes Katherine and Joseph have done a good job of teaching Isabel about her Cherokee culture.

“She seems to be very well adjusted,” Jones said. “I can tell that she is aware of her heritage and is proud of it.”

Some couples, like the Thompsons, want to adopt Native American children because of cultural reasons. Other couples find that the opportunity just falls right into their laps.

Salt Lake City residents Julian Sanford, 39, and his wife, Megan, 35, have been foster parents for the past seven years. In July 2004, they began fostering a young Navajo child, Hannah.

“We had never fostered an Indian child before,” said Megan. “It was a big change when Hannah came to live with us.”

After fostering the child for six months, the couple decided they would like to adopt Hannah. The adoption process lasted more than a year, but, finally, Hannah officially became part of the family.

“Finally adopting [Hannah] didn’t change how we felt about her,” Julian said. “We loved Hannah the second we met her and have always considered her our daughter.” 

Initially, the Sanfords were worried about raising a Native American child. More than three years after adopting Hannah, it is still a concern, but has gotten easier.

“We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to teach [Hannah] about her culture,” Megan said. “Over the past few years we have made a real effort to make sure Hannah knows about her heritage. We want it to be a part of her life.”

The Sanfords have been introducing Hannah to other Native American children, taking her to cultural celebrations and teaching her about Cherokee history to make sure she grows up with a strong sense of identity.

Native American mixed-race relationships in Utah


Jonathan and Mandie Hansen are a typical married couple. They live in the suburbs, enjoy their weekly date nights and love going on vacations with their young son. However, one major difference separates them from other couples: race. Mandie is white and Jonathan is Native American.  

According to Jonathan, mixed-race relationships are a sensitive issue in Utah. 

“People want to pretend that you don’t exist,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with you.”

However, according to recent statistics, mixed-race relationships are steadily increasing with more and more people deciding to marry and date outside their race.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of interracial marriages has soared over the last 35 years. Overall, the Bureau calculates that more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970.

Being an interracial couple is never easy.  Dealing with challenges including racism, cultural differences and raising biracial children in a largely white area can be taxing, no matter how strong a relationship is. Are the challenges associated with being an interracial couple worth it?

Marrying Other Ethnic Groups

Despite the increase in interracial marriages as a whole, mixed-race marriages involving Native Americans remain low. They account for less than 1 percent of interracial marriages in the United States.

Even though mixed-race marriages involving Native Americans are uncommon, Jonathan, 32, and Mandie Mortensen, 30, don’t consider their relationship unconventional. Not now, at least. 

When Mandie first announced to her conservative family, who reside in West Valley, that she was engaged to a Navajo man, they were less than enthusiastic.

“My family pretended that they were all right with me marrying Jonathan, but I knew better,” Mandie said. “[Because] of their hesitancy, it made me question our relationship as well. It took me a few months before I finally [decided] that I loved Jonathan and would marry him with or without my family’s approval.”

Jonathan and Mandie were married in 2002. After a lot of compromise, Mandie says her family has finally warmed up to Jonathan.

“They see that I love him and that [our] marriage is solid,” Mandie said. “I think they are happy because I’m happy.” 

Throughout the six years of their marriage, Mandie and Jonathan have learned to take things one day at a time. They have accepted the fact that being in an interracial marriage always comes with challenges. They will always have to deal with racism and cultural issues, but are trying to make understanding and cooperation the basis of their marriage.

“I’m not Navajo. I never will be,” Mandie said. “But I’m married to a wonderful man who is Navajo so I need to respect their traditions and way of life.”

Marrying Between Tribes

While many Native Americans are not marrying whites, Asians, or African Americans, many are marrying outside of their tribe. While these unions might not be “interracial” by traditional definitions, they can still bring up cultural issues.

When Dayna Jones, 27, a Navajo, started dating Chris Jorgensen, 31, a Ute, she was certain their relationship would never work. Dayna was concerned that because they were from different tribes, their values and beliefs would be too different.

“I was raised in a very traditional Navajo family,” Dayna said. “No one in my family has ever dated or married [someone] from a different tribe. How could I suddenly go against my upbringing and date a Ute?”

Much like Dayna, Chris was also hesitant about dating outside of his tribe.

“Even though we are both Native Americans, Utes and Navajos have different ways of doing things,” Chris said. “I thought dating a Navajo would simply mean too many compromises.”

Despite their initial reluctance to get involved with one another, love quickly bloomed between them.

“I couldn’t help that I fell in love with a Ute,” Dayna said. “Once I started to develop serious feelings for Chris, what tribe he was from didn’t seem to matter so much.”

Chris and Dayna have now been married for three years. They are the first to admit it has been challenging. One of the main issues they have had to deal with involves blending their families.

“When I first married Dayna, my mother did not approve of her,” Chris said. “She wanted me to marry a Ute and Dayna did not fit the mold. She is more accepting of her now that we are married, but I am positive there are still some feelings of resentment there.”

Chris and Dayna also frequently have disagreements about how to raise their 1-year-old daughter, Nicole. Because Nicole is both Navajo and Ute, they want her to feel connected with both tribes.

“We want [Nicole] to grow up with a strong sense of identity,” Dayna said. “Figuring out how to teach her both Navajo and Ute traditions is the complicated part. We don’t ever want her to think that one [tribe] is more important than the other.”

Even though marrying someone from a different Native American tribe has not been simple, Chris says he has no regrets.

“My [marriage] with Dayna is not perfect, but what marriage is?” Chris said. “I love her and that has always been the most important thing.”

Raising Biracial Children

Biracial children have become commonplace in modern society. More and more children are growing up with parents of different races, learning two or mote sets of traditions, values, even languages.

Mandie and Jonathan know firsthand that raising a biracial child is never easy. The couple says they have struggled teaching their 6-year-old son, Jack, about both his Navajo and white heritage.

“Teaching your child about two different heritages is a tough thing,” Jonathan said. “Jack seems confused about the fact that he is both white and Navajo. Hopefully that will become clearer to him as he gets older.”

Mandie and Jonathan have tried to incorporate both white and Native American traditions into everyday life so that Jack is constantly surrounded by his heritage.

“I try to cook traditional meals once in a while and have been teaching Jack some Navajo words,” Jonathan said. “We also make sure that we visit both sides of the family often so that he is exposed to both cultures. He definitely loves learning about both cultures.”

Even though Jack is only 5, Mandie and Jonathan are hopeful he will continue to relate to both his Navajo and white heritage as he gets older.

“Jack is already proud of his heritage,” Mandie said. “We think it will continue as he grows older if we [continue] to emphasize the importance of both cultures.”

Ultimately, the couple thinks the most important thing they can do is love their son and make sure he knows that the color of his skin is not the most important thing.

“We want our son to grow up and know that he is loved,” Jonathan said. “In our family, love is more important than race ever will be.”

Media influenced Native American voters


The Black Eagle family of the Crow Tribe adopted president-elect Barack Obama, whose new name is “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land,” during his visit to the Crow Nation in Montana on May 19, 2008.

Obama was the first presidential candidate to visit the reservations of the Crow Nation. He was adopted in a private ceremony, and then he gave a speech ensuring Native Americans that their well-being is a priority to him.

He promised to honor the government-to-government relationships and treaties, to appoint an American Indian policy advisor and to host an annual summit with tribal leaders. Obama also vowed to improve trust funds, education and health care for reservations all over the country.

“I want you to know that I will never forget you,” Obama said in his speech to the Crow Nation. “You will be on my mind every day that I am in the White House.”

Obama’s visit and speech had an impact on the early support from Native Americans.

“I think people were impressed with his commitment he showed by just going to the reservation,” said Harlan McKosato, the host for Native America Calling, in a phone interview.

Native Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama by more than 80 percent, according to a poll conducted by Native Vote Washington, a voter advocacy group based in the state of Washington. And like most demographics this election, voter turnout for Native Americans also saw an increase.

“Before a lot of people didn’t vote because they said it didn’t matter who was in the administration because things didn’t change for Native peoples. They were treated the same and ignored the same,” said Donna Maldonado, general manager of KRCL. “The tribes saw promise in Obama. … I think he is our hope for the future.”

Native American support can be attributed to many factors, including Obama’s promise of change and better voter education overall.


Obama has promised change to the Native American community. And while most are skeptical about promises made by a politician, a lot of people think he can change things, McKosato said.

Native Americans see Obama as someone they can identify with because of his diverse heritage, said Ella Dayzie, executive director of the Indian Walk-In Center in Salt Lake City, in an e-mail interview.

A follow-through on those promises will first be seen through Obama’s appointments within his cabinet and other positions. He has promised to create an American Indian advisor position to better meet the needs of the Native communities. Obama has also proposed an annual summit with Native American tribal leaders.

“With a Native American cabinet chair, the hope is that the U.S. government can now be well informed about the special set of challenges American Indians face, from issues of sovereignty to access to affordable health/behavioral health care,” Dayzie said. “One cannot ignore what is in front of him/her daily.”

Obama has already named six Native Americans to various transition teams. Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Roubideaux have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues respectively, and John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson will advise Obama on changes within the Interior Department, according to

Obama has also promised money towards improvements for Native American health care and education. His economic and infrastructure development plan includes an increase in the federal minimum wage and adequate funding for the Indian Housing Block grant, according to the First Americans Fact Sheet at Obama’s Web site.

Obama’s promises to Native Americans created greater interest in the election within the Native communities. Voter education on the issues and candidates also influenced voter turnout.

Voter Education

Voters had a vast amount of information at hand about the election, from the newspaper and television to the Internet and YouTube. Most of the sources contained general information on candidates and issues. However, some programs focused on Native American issues and voting.

KRCL-FM is a public radio station in Salt Lake City, Utah, founded in 1979 as a community radio station where all issues could be discussed. KRCL has always been committed to having diverse voices on the air, said Maldonado general manager of KRCL.

Various ethnic groups, including Native Americans, have had airtime since the beginning. Today, the Native American slot is on Sunday mornings. Native America Calling, a live call-in program based in Albuquerque, N.M., that discusses issues specific to the Native American community, is rebroadcast on KRCL at 6 a.m. And, at 7 a.m., Living the Circle of Life plays traditional powwow music and contemporary American Indian music from local and national artists.

Native America Calling is an hour-long program that airs every weekday at 1 p.m. Eastern time on select stations. The program’s topics range from financial issues to a book of the month. During the presidential campaign, the program evaluated the topics and candidates from a Native American point of view.

“Native [America] Calling on KRCL helped in bringing news/reports about the issues that matter to Native American voters,” Ella Dayzie said.

Some of the election topics included discussions about political parties, Native veterans, women’s vote, young voters and planning for Election Day. The program also talked about the reaction to Obama’s win and discussed the promises Obama made to Native Americans.

Native America Calling has had full phone lines each time the election was discussed, said McKosato, the show host.

“People were more interested in this campaign than ever before,” he said.

Native America Calling helped get the issues out to Native Americans. The show used politics related to the community to spark an interest in the election and get people motivated to vote. 

AIROS Native Radio Network also used the radio and Internet to give Native American voters a voice. AIROS is an all-Indian Internet radio that is broadcast 24 hours a day through web streaming. It had audio, video, news articles and podcasts covering the election from a Native perspective. AIROS reporters used their stories to link Native communities to the election. They covered the 2008 Native Vote Initiative campaigns, presidential candidate rallies and Native American support.

The National Congress of American Indians expanded its Native Vote Initiative this year in an aggressive campaign to get more Native Americans to vote. The 2008 initiative had four core plans: provide training to educate, engage and mobilize voters; ensure fairness of voting laws and protect Native voters; educate candidates on issues important to Indian Country; and get the Native Vote message to media and the general public. Volunteers from tribal communities visited with people, even going door to door, to educate individuals about issues and help them register to vote.

“The NCAI’s Native Vote team has done a great job on getting the ‘vote’ out and educating the American Indians about both parties so that [they] can make an informed decision,” Dayzie said.

The End Result

Obama’s goals and promises to better Indian Country have brought a new hope to Native Americans. And due to a focus on the Native American voters and issues, Obama now has the opportunity to keep his promises to them and people all over the United States.

Miss Utah Navajo


  • See a slideshow of Hokti Miles (best viewed in full-screen mode)

Hokti Miles of Salt Lake City was born into a family where her mother is Navajo and her father is white. Her mother speaks both Navajo and English, but her father speaks only English. Because of this, Navajo was not spoken much at home. Consequently, Miles never learned the language. But, her mother did try to teach her what she knew about the traditional Navajo way of life and the culture.

Miles was crowned Miss Utah Navajo in September 2007 and passed on her crown to another young woman in September 2008. Winners of the Miss Utah Navajo pageant typically are full-blooded Navajos and speak the language. But, Miles’ experiences and blend of cultures helped her connect with younger Navajos who do not speak the language. Because of the respect that comes with the crown of Miss Utah Navajo, she was also able to help older people understand what they can do differently to help children learn the language and culture.

After being crowned, Miles met Jonathea Tso, the 2007 Miss Navajo Nation, at a Veterans Day event. Tso invited her to go to a leadership conference for Miss Navajo pageant winners where Tso and other Navajo Nation leaders taught the girls how to behave as representatives of the Navajo Nation.

“You’ve got to learn to be reserved and got to watch what you do and watch what you say,” Miles said. “You’ve just got to act with respect and dignity at all times.”

As Miss Utah Navajo, Miles participated in several programs representing the Navajo Nation. She taught about the culture, promoted good health and living, and the traditional Navajo way of life. She felt it was very important to inspire Navajo children and teenagers who do not know the language to start learning it because they can learn so much about themselves and their culture.

“I would stress the importance of knowing your elders, like your grandparents, before they pass on to another world,” Miles said. “And all the lessons that they can teach you, it’s just amazing. You can become such a good person just from learning from them.”

Sharee Varela, a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Department of Languages and Literature, who teaches Miles Navajo, said, “One of the Navajo philosophers who was one of my teachers back home on the tribal reservation…says that in order for the youth to regain their identity and self-respect again in society, in both western society and Navajo society, is to retain the language and the traditional teachings of Navajo.”

Since she holds this knowledge, Varela feels that it is her responsibility to pass it on to the kids. “Only if they want to learn it though,” she said. “I tell my kids, if you really want to know, if you really want to learn, I’ll teach you, but only when you are ready.”

During her reign, Miles felt the need to tell parents and grandparents they have a responsibility to teach their children the language and Navajo traditions. She often related to them her own experiences.

Her grandparents were never a major part of her life because they died when she was very young. “My mom didn’t teach me much Navajo and it is such a struggle now,” Miles said. “They look down on the younger generations because we don’t know Navajo, and yet it’s their fault that we don’t know Navajo.” When speaking to the elders she often encouraged them not to criticize young people, but to help them instead.

One experience Miles had where she felt criticized was at a charity event called Tip-A-Royalty. This is an event involving all eight royalties from the Navajo Nation. They served as waitresses at Earl’s Restaurant in Gallop, N.M., and all the tips they received were donated to help with the Special Olympics.

While waiting tables, a man asked her a question in Navajo. Miles said she understood bits and pieces of what he said but couldn’t quite comprehend everything. He asked her where she was from and when she told him he said, “Why don’t you know Navajo then? That area is full of culture!” Miles explained her situation, but the man replied, “You should still know.” Miles said in return, “I’m learning now, is that not enough?”

Miles said that was one of the worst experiences she had because she felt so bad afterward. “It was just rough to hear that from people,” she said.

Varela said the way this man spoke to her is appropriate in Navajo culture, especially if he is a close relative.

“An older person getting after you like that, culturally it’s appropriate, especially if they are related to you as an uncle. So, if he was related to her as an uncle he has every right to get after her like a father,” she said. “Navajo culture not only teaches respect but it also teaches you the roles you take in Navajo society. He took appropriate role as an uncle in going after her for whatever he felt he needed to say.” Varela said that culturally this is not being mean or rude. He is just telling her, in his own opinion, what she needs know.

Miles participated in several cultural events as Miss Utah Navajo, including: The Utah Navajo Fair, The Navajo Nation Parade and The Days of ’47 Parade. Some of her greatest experiences as Miss Utah Navajo came while speaking at different schools across the state. She said she loved going to elementary schools because the children all looked up to her. They respected her and would almost always sit quietly while she was speaking. Several have recognized her in other settings, such as while shopping. The children pull on their mother’s hand and whisper with a big smile, “That is Miss Utah Navajo.”

Before being crowned, Miles said she was not a very good person. She didn’t care much about her culture and traditions. But, because of her experiences with being Miss Utah Navajo she said she has became a much better person. She has more respect and love for her culture, language and people. She has also received the love and respect she felt she has needed from the older generations.

“A lot of the elders they would come up to me and call me ‘shideezhi,’” which means little sister in Navajo. “It just felt really great. It seemed like they really respected me for what I was doing,” Miles said. “I just wanted the other kids to know how great it felt to be loved by their elders and to be respected by them.”

%d bloggers like this: