SOE Associate Professor Documents Schools’ Efforts to Preserve Indigenous Language and Culture


A member of the Loyola Marymount University School of Education faculty spent the 2017-18 academic year visiting schools in indigenous communities in the United States and Mexico to learn about their experiences integrating indigenous language and culture into their curricula and school practices.

Ernesto Colín, Ph.D. – ’99, M.A. ’01, SOE Associate Professor of Urban Education performs as an Aztec dancer.

Ernesto Colín, SOE associate professor of urban education, notes that Native American indigenous communities continue to struggle mightily as a result of the dark history of oppression and abuse by the federal government. One result is that indigenous languages and ceremonies are in danger of disappearing.

“These communities have been under assault,” Colín says. “They face enormous health, economic, environmental and criminal justice challenges. Education is an important way to open doors for their youth and begin to change these outcomes.”

Colín, who comes from an indigenous Mexican family and has been an Aztec dancer for more than two decades, has focused on ensuring in his scholarship that teachers are prepared to be effective in diverse classrooms. For his sabbatical project last year, he set out to document the experiences of schools in a variety of settings that are incorporating indigenous language and culture. “As a teacher-educator it’s important for me to be on the ground talking and listening to teachers, students and school leaders,” he says.

Colín visited a Hoopa Valley Reservation in California, Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, indigenous schools in Hawaii and New Mexico, and a university in Oaxaca, Mexico. He has previously conducted similar research at an indigenous school in Guatemala.

In their efforts to incorporate indigenous language and culture, all of these schools are grappling with challenges well beyond what schools in better-resourced communities face, including high rates of poverty, substance abuse, suicide, incarceration, family separation and isolation, Colín notes. “It’s hard to preserve and revitalize language and culture when you’re concerned about students having their basic needs met,” he says.

The schools Colín visited were also hampered by high rates of teacher and administrator turnover. With fewer and fewer teachers who speak the indigenous language or are well versed in the indigenous culture, and many school leaders not staying in place for long, sustaining important language and cultural initiatives and obtaining necessary parent buy-in and involvement is much more difficult, Colín says.

Despite these significant hurdles, Colín observed many successful efforts to integrate language and culture into schools’ curricula and practices. At the school he visited in Hawaii, for example, students began each morning with a traditional Hawaiian song and took classes in ukulele and traditional music, as well as learning traditional art and agriculture. At an indigenous school in New Mexico, students learned to grind corn, and studied traditional prayers, songs and attire. Colín saw sweat lodges and organic gardens that cultivated native plants. He witnessed community elders being brought in for indigenous education. There were murals, pow wows and other traditional ceremonies. One school sent a student delegation to a United Nations forum on indigenous issues.

“Everywhere I went, I was able to see the incorporation of indigenous ceremonies, music, art, language, and traditional knowledge systems,” Colín says. “These schools end up being beacons of hope, resources and caring well beyond the instruction they provide. It’s both beautiful and inspirational, and it’s having a tremendously positive effect on the students.”

Colín is currently analyzing the data he collected for the project. He plans to return to the sites he visited, and explore new sites both in the U.S. and abroad. “I hope to be both a scholar and a resource for these schools,” he says. “Many of them are isolated and not aware of what other schools are doing. It’s important to share knowledge and start conversations among these schools so that they can benefit from each other’s experiences.”