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Hopi at crossroads of maintaining language for elected posts

Members of a small northeastern Arizona tribe are voting Thursday for their next chairman.
Credit: AP
Hopi Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma speaks to an audience gathered for a debate between candidates at the tribe's high school in Polacca, Arizona, on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Nuvangyaoma faces David Talayumptewa, seated on stage, in the election Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

FIRST MESA, Ariz. — Candidates for Hopi chairman move easily between the tribe's language and English as they make their case for votes from a high school auditorium.

The audience is a mix of fluent speakers, Hopis whose language and culture were attacked at assimilation-focused boarding schools, Hopis who fear they might be mocked if they stumble over Hopi words, and others who want to learn. 

To be in the place of Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma or his challenger, David Talayumptewa, Hopis must be able to speak and understand Hopi. The rule in the tribal constitution was loosened in 2017 from being fluent, and Nuvangyaoma is pushing to eliminate any language requirement for the top leadership job on the 2,500 square-mile (6,475 square-kilometer) reservation.

He contends nixing it would draw in younger Hopis who were told to leave their homeland, get an education and return to help their people with skills in technology, engineering, law and hydrology but cannot speak Hopi. The reservation is composed of 12 villages in the Arizona high desert and is home to about half of the 14,000 enrolled Hopis. It is completely surrounded by the much larger Navajo Nation.

"We're never going to ignore our culture and traditions, but we are in 2021 now," Nuvangyaoma said in an interview.

Talayumptewa counters the problem lies not with the constitution but in Nuvangyaoma's leadership style, and the solution is in fostering a resurgence of the language that defines Hopis.

"That's his gamble," Talayumptewa said of Nuvangyaoma's push. "It will be an issue in the election. I'm not backing off, and I guess that's my gamble."

The discussion about the language's role in tribal politics inevitably turns into one about cultural preservation and identity. Hopi, like other tribes, have fought to maintain their language while the U.S. government tried to eradicate their culture and assimilate them into white society.

A similar issue drew attention on the Navajo Nation several years ago, when a candidate on the largest Native American reservation was disqualified after refusing to be its first presidential hopeful to undergo a fluency test. Voters relaxed the requirements, essentially eliminating the need for key leaders to be fluent in Navajo. 

The White Mountain Apache Tribe in eastern Arizona requires its chairperson to speak the tribe's language. Other tribes without a language requirement include the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

The Hopi reservation has been trending toward English being the dominant language for decades, as fewer parents speak Hopi at home, said Dr. Sheilah Nicholas, or Qötsahonmana, a University of Arizona professor from the Hopi village of Songoopavi. A U.S. Census Bureau study released in 2011 found fewer than a half-million people age 5 and over spoke a Native American language at home.

A small segment of Hopis who live in a community at the base of First Mesa speak Tewa, a language more common heard among pueblo tribes along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

The Hopi sense of identity is vulnerable when Hopis live off the remote reservation, are distanced from religious and cultural practices like dry farming and ceremonies in the kiva, and can't speak the language that is part of a spiritual covenant with the creator, Maasaw, Qötsahonmana said.

But focusing only on the speaking ability erases other forms of language, she said.

"There's songs, there's teachings, there's prayer," said Qötsahonmana. "All of those, if you are engaged and involved in those, you are becoming Hopi."

Bernita Duwahoyeoma, whose Hopi name is Siwivensi, pointed to sacrifices made over the years to protect the tribe's language and culture.

Nineteen Hopi men were incarcerated at Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco, in 1865 after refusing to send Hopi children to boarding school. In 1701, Hopis who resisted efforts by the Spanish to convert them to Christianity destroyed one of their own villages to ensure continuation of Hopi practices. Hopi men, women and children died, Siwivensi said.

"It's our whole culture at stake," she said. "Just something as simple as language, and there we go as a people. And I'm wondering, which one of these candidates is going to be sincere and listen to what the people are saying from their hearts?"

The winner in Thursday's nonpartisan election cannot single-handedly make changes to the 1934 Hopi constitution, but can shape a proposal through the Tribal Council and put it out for a vote.

Leilani Nish, who volunteered as a moderator for the debate and doesn't speak Hopi yet, said she'd welcome a change to involve the youth.

"It's not a free pass," said the 19-year-old college student. "Whoever is there, regardless, should be able to learn the language. That way, when you're talking (to) and greeting the people, you can greet them in Hopi. It's just more respectful."

Nuvangyaoma, 50, was a fresh face in Hopi politics before he was elected for the four-year term. He has been a firefighter, worked in finance, volunteered for the Hopi radio station and served four prison terms for aggravated drunken driving, experiences he said have helped him connect to Hopis who struggle with substance abuse.

During Saturday's debate, he repeatedly alluded to constitutional reform to give citizens a larger voice in tribal government, to create separation of powers and to modernize the document. 

Talayumptewa, a 71-year-old retired U.S. Bureau of Education official, has championed creating a single school district on the reservation. He said the tribal government needs to partner with small businesses and private industries, and reengage with language and culture.

Nuvangyaoma beat Talayumptewa in the 2017 election. Vice chairman candidates Clark Tenakhongva and Craig Andrews run on separate tickets. Turnout generally is low.

Nuvangyaoma and Talayumptewa took questions on public safety, tribal sovereignty, tourism, flooding and illegal trash dumping during the debate at the school in Polacca that has allowed Hopis to get a high school education on their own reservation. A Hopi word at the entrance — nahongvita — encourages students to dig deep and stay strong. 

The stage was adorned with gourds, baskets and a colorful painting with corn stalks and Hopis in traditional dress. 

The candidates introduced themselves in Hopi but spoke primarily in English. Toward the end of the two-hour debate, Talayumptewa outlined his plan to revitalize the language, which includes immersion programs. Nuvangyaoma dismissed the talk as an empty promise, saying Talayumptewa has had plenty of time to enact change as a three-term council member on the education committee. 

Deidra Honyumptewa, 47, said she left the debate feeling hopeful. She and her family recently moved from the Phoenix area back home to the Village of Tewa but do not speak Hopi or Tewa.

"There's a lot of highly educated people my age that are willing to step up to the plate and do what we need to do for our tribe, but that is a barrier for us," she said.


Fonseca is a member of the AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP 

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