Some of the students in Elfreida Begay’s class timidly sound out the syllables of a language they had never heard uttered in school before this year. Others are more forceful as they test out the sharp edges of the Indigenous words their teacher asks them to repeat.
But it doesn’t matter how they speak the language – only that they are speaking.
“This language is born in you,” Begay tells her Navajo students. “It is in you at this moment. We need to somehow unpack it and unfold it and release it. I want you to be able to speak the language, not just for me as a grade but for your family, for your legacy.”
The Durango High School teacher, who is Navajo, introduced the Indigenous language Diné Bizaad to high schoolers this fall, breathing sound back into her first language, one she fears will one day be replaced by silence. Her class is part of a growing movement to help Indigenous students in Durango School District 9-R – where kids representing 31 tribal nations attend school – reclaim their culture and thread their families’ long-held traditions and language back into their education. It’s a weighty undertaking that also demands delicacy, with Indigenous communities caught between the horrors of history and controversies that overwhelm schools today.
Some of those horrors unfolded beginning in the late 1800s right in Durango, where a federal, off-reservation Native American boarding school preceded Fort Lewis College. It forced Indigenous students to assimilate to Western culture and barred them from expressing their Native culture. More than 130 years later, school districts across Colorado are now embroiled in debates over how to teach the darker chapters of American history, with some districts embracing the conservative American Birthright standards, which largely reject teaching history through diverse perspectives.
That’s why district leaders in Durango have poured more effort into communicating with families and taking the time to understand their backgrounds, said Vanessa Giddings, executive director of Student Support Services.
“It’s about just really getting to know families and having conversations with families about where they are, where they’ve come from, leaning into those conversations and just doing it from a place of care,” Giddings said.
Durango School District, which is located about 20 miles from the Southern Ute Indian Reservation and about 60 miles from the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, has amplified its focus on cultural awareness for Indigenous students in recent years while working to strengthen ties between schools and Native parents.
The district about a decade ago created an advisory council for Native American parents so that district leaders can get input on the needs of Indigenous students and how to best meet them. Each school in the district also has a staff member designated to support Indigenous students and help create a sense of belonging for them.
And the district, which educates more than 4,500 students, has become more attuned to the beliefs and customs of tribal nations, said Orlando Griego, who is responsible for making sure Native students in Durango are being treated fairly and have equal access to classroom and sports opportunities.
That means finding new assignments for Indigenous students in science class who cannot dissect animals and respecting kids who need to be away from school for an extended period while mourning a loved one, said Griego, who is a descendant of the Mohawk Nation and a Durango High School graduate.
The district has enlivened school walls with posters and art pieces that depict Indigenous students, stocked classrooms and libraries with books that have storylines reflecting their experiences, and incorporated traditional Native American games into gym classes and other courses.
“It’s really giving our students a voice, really making sure that they have somebody that they feel that they can connect with and talk to, really ensuring that if something is going south they have somebody that they can call or text and ask for things,” Griego said.
And while many Indigenous students continue to fall behind in academics across the state, Durango School District has shown signs of progress, graduating all its Indigenous seniors last year.
Begay, the high school’s Navajo language teacher, is Colorado’s only educator certified by the state education department with a Native American language and culture authorization and endorsement, according to the department. She began learning Diné Bizaad during her earliest years of childhood before starting to pick up pieces of English at age 4.
Begay, who has a master’s degree in English as a second language and bilingual education, also wants to one day teach Navajo history and government so that students have a firm understanding of different tribal nations and where their historical territories are located.
She stumbled upon her promise as an educator more than 20 years ago when she enrolled in a college Navajo language class. Once she became a mom, she quickly discovered the urgent need to pass Diné Bizaad onto the next generation, with few other Navajo parents she knew sharing the language with their children.
Begay teaches her Native students that they are fulfilling their destinies based on what their ancestors wanted for them. For her, that starts with saving a language that is core to their identities.
“It is in their genes,” she said. “It is in their blood. It’s in every heartbeat that they have. We nurture that need. We nurture that piece of our education to be able to pull the language out.”
Diné Bizaad, Begay says, is a “guttural” language spoken with abrupt stops. According to tribal legends, Begay added, humans inherited the language.
“Our language started to exist before time,” she said. “It was not given to us as humans. It was given to insects and animals, to them first. It was given to the environment first.”
Begay helps her students connect with the Indigenous language, in part, by translating words that are relevant to most teens. During a recent early morning class, she asked her students to shout out words related to something they really like – something “you absolutely love,” she told her students. “You can feel inside your body.”
The answers ranged from favorite subjects and pastimes like astronomy and singing to popular kinds of entertainment like video games.
She turned students’ attention to learning how those words sound in Diné Bizaad and how they appear spelled out. “I am singing” translates to “hashtaał” while “sǫʼ naalkaah” means “astronomy” (stars plus the act of studying) and “video games” is depicted by the phrase, “níłchʼi naalkidí daanéʼé,” combining words for “television” and “toy.”
Begay designed her course without textbooks or Chromebooks and teaches her students simply by speaking and listening, prodding them to reflect on what it feels like in their mouth, throat and nasal cavity to pronounce words. Her approach to teaching hearkens back to the oral tradition her Native ancestors used in passing down Diné Bizaad.
She also weaves movement into her lessons, directing students to act out the words they’re saying with full-body motions and gestures so that they can associate words with something physical that will help them better remember their new vocabulary.
And she pushes her students to project and embrace their “inner voice” as they speak the Indigenous language.
“These are living words that are coming out of you,” Begay tells her students. “Not only is another person listening to you – your teacher, other students, whoever. Not only are they listening to you, but the environment is listening to you. The trees hear your voice. The wind. The sky. The earth. The sun. The weather. The elements. They all hear your voice.”
Teaching both Indigenous students and their classmates whose families are not part of a tribal nation, Begay has watched as some of the white students in her class have seamlessly grasped pronunciation, sometimes quicker than their Navajo peers. She suspects that embarrassment might be the culprit for her Native students, stemming from the uneasiness that often comes with being a teen and from something much deeper: historical trauma.
Grandparents and great-grandparents of Indigenous students likely were forced into boarding schools, Begay said, where “the Indigenous identity was taken away completely.”
“From that experience comes, ‘I don’t want my future generation to have to suffer what I did, so because of that, I will intentionally never speak my language ever again,’” she said. “Now we have some students who appear to be Indigenous, who appear to be Native but have not a single experience of any customs, cultural activities, ceremonies or heard the language. And they come in hungry. Those are the kids that they come in hungry, like I want to know, I want to know who I am. Where am I coming from? Who are my people? Wanting to find that sense of belonging.”
One of her students, senior Kenji Lebbon, enrolled in the class to revive a part of his identity stretching back generations. Lebbon, who is part-Navajo, said his grandma went through the boarding school system, leaving her traumatized for much of her life.
“Getting that language back would be taking back your identity that was taken away with those boarding schools,” Lebbon, 17, said.
He has learned bits and pieces of Diné Bizaad throughout his childhood, but sitting down in Begay’s class has pushed him much deeper into the language, which he said he has picked up much more slowly than other languages that have more parallels to English, such as Spanish.
The nuance of the language and the precision it requires to pronounce certain sounds has challenged and invigorated Lebbon, who hopes to one day ask his grandma and great-aunts how their day is going in Diné Bizaad.
“You get to peer into the history of Navajo,” he said, “in a way that you couldn’t really get just by looking at a textbook.”