Culture and language teachers support each other in education and learning

September 7, 2018


Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


A Community program focuses on educating the educators on Akimel O’otham language and culture. 

Sitting together in the main conference room of the Tribal Education Department offices, three individuals share their vision for carrying on the O’otham Neok in the classroom during a recent discussion on Aug. 29. 


“[This] is it…a staff of three individuals,” said Culture Coordinator Anthony Gray, “Up until a few years ago there was only one person in the program, which was Joyce Hughes.”


Gray is joined by Tammy Histia and Jarrod Lewis to support the culture teachers in the schools across the Community. 

Histia works as the programs Assistant Cultural Coordinator, while Lewis joined not too long ago as the Cultural & Language Curriculum Developer.


“We provide a resource for them and support them in any way that they need to do in teaching the culture to the kids,” said Gray. 


To keep everyone on the same page a monthly grassroots Education Culture Committee is held among the culture teachers, but is open to Community members interested in attending the meeting.


It’s an informal way of getting all the culture together to discuss how the O’otham language can be taught in the classroom and into the home. “Anything that is culturally related to education goes before them to see if we are interested in doing and if it has the support of the teachers,” said Gray. 


He said as a collective the ECC wants to create a picture dictionary since the Community adopted the orthography in 2009, it is about time to create some form of material on it. 


Lewis, “I’m compiling all the data that has been gathered so far from the elders and from other culture teachers to plot out the best way we can use to teach the children…eventually it will be used to educate the children.” 


Education and language isn’t new to Lewis, he worked as a culture specialist at each of the four head start centers. 


It introduced him to the potential to take what he learned from teaching the language and working in each of the four centers throughout the week to teach the children about the culture. 


Histia said, “My mom was a teacher here…a teacher at the school,” said Histia, “I knew I wanted to teach, but I didn’t know what, but later on I had a goal in mind around culture.”


She said after working within the Community, interacting with others and the elders, taught her the value of how the O’otham language is important to preserve. 


“I worked with him, when he was working with the elders, when he was at head start and we’ve worked together for about ten years,” said Histia about working to learn more about the language along with Gray. 


All agree, utilizing the language is an important part of learning, because it’s something that has to be practiced regularly to grasp it. 


“We have to find news ways to help the younger generation learn the language, and to come to appreciate being O’otham,” said Histia. 


Teaching the next generation of educators 


Gray said the promotion of language among the younger generation of Community members in the schools is an important responsibility, but doing something to harvest the next line of cultural teachers is critical. 


“We’ve thought about teaching the younger generation of language teachers,” said Gray, on the need for more cultural teachers in the Community. He said through the University of Arizona American Indian Development Institute, “We’re able to host a summer institute two summers ago and we are in talks to have something similar done in the Community.” 


Gray said the summer session was a big hit and at the same time participants in the institute are able to get college credits and U of A was able to bring it here in the Community.


“It’s understanding what it is that we can do and we are projecting towards doing something in 2019,” said Gray, “They’ve (ALDI) been an organization that’s been around for 40 years and the United Nations theme of the year, is actually indigenous languages.”


He said they’ve been tasked with doing a quarterly professional development session on Sept. 7 on culture and language, which is aimed at school staff and educators, because they know there is not enough of them in the classroom and a train-the-trainer approach is the next best thing.