Acquiring Skills in a Good Way
By ERICA TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
Easy laughter rippled out from three staff members of Hoopa’s NDN Center.
They sat at a round table in the middle of a space freed from cubicles last fall, to put their heads together about an upcoming youth activity.
Behind them, the walls were lined with artistic and photographic depictions of indigenous heroes and large, carefully inked cards with letters of the Hupa alphabet.
“We teachers are still learning to speak and understand Hupa language,” staffer Lea Pratt said without shame.
But the team of leaders has enough collective grasp of the language to toss out an occasional one word joke, and enough cultural awareness to perceive the humor in it. It’s a sign of how they strive to run the program: by engaging others and staying engaged themselves.
Ginger Rogers, the director of the Center since it re-opened last fall, has the firmest grasp on Hupa language amongst her co-workers, though all three are dedicated to learning and teaching it.
Rogers followed in the footsteps of her older siblings, watching how they earned respect from elders when speaking Hupa in the community.
Earlier that morning, Rogers had reeled through Hupa words for human anatomy in a class of seventh graders at Hoopa Elementary school. The students circled around her slapped their knees, pointed to their eyes, ears, mouth and heads over and over, never once wearying of the repetition. Some shouted, while others mouthed silently. Sometimes they had the right body part, and sometimes not. They all tried, and they got better even just in a few minutes time.
Nearby, teacher Ms. Moya and classroom aide Virgil Doolittle followed with pride and amusement.
Doolittle is credited with bringing Rogers into this class to work with students to increase exposure to the language at the elementary school.
“In our culture, everything we learn is passed down through speaking. We have an oral tradition. Learning the Hupa language teaches you a lot about respect and culture,” Doolittle said.
Virgil, age 23, is also working to improve his Hupa language skills. He took a class in December, which he said motivated him to do more. Rogers is one of two of his aunts who speak fluently, as does one of his uncles.
“I love to speak it with my nieces and nephews,” Virgil said.
The Hupa word for “listen,” is his favorite word so far. Asked how to spell it, Virgil consulted his aunt Ginger across the room. She wrote it on the white board behind him three different ways before adding her approval to the correct spelling and erasing the other two.
Rogers said there’s no language app for kids to put on their cell phones…yet, But the Center is looking into how to create such an app.
All three staff members confirmed that the work is both exhausting and rewarding. The short attention spans of kids can be a challenge, Pratt pointed out.
That’s why all of the Center’s activities are highly adaptive. The flexibility shows in Rogers’ approach with the students in the class, as the activity stays with the same vocabulary but keeps kids moving and shifts to a different game any time participants begin to lose interest.
The students have earned themselves a short break to burn some energy outside. Two of them stopped to tell about their Hupa lessons.
“My favorite word is ‘k’idul.’ It means ‘boom’,” Freddy Doolittle, Virgil’s little brother, said triumphantly on his way out the door.
Mickey Carpenter seconded Freddy’s word choice as his favorite also. They launched into a patient explanation about how the Hupa language has three ways to count: one that resembles how we count in English (1,2,3…), one that is used for counting people, and one that counts in increments of ten. The fascinating cultural account of numbers showed the 12-year-olds to be not only engaged students, but also competent teachers.
The boys agreed that it was “pretty cool” learning Hupa every Wednesday and Thursday “because we can learn way more than most people have a chance to.” Indeed, there is just one Hupa language teacher hired by the elementary school, and she is stretched too thin, Virgil Doolittle said.
The Center focuses on helping to empower young people, especially those who are struggling, such as special education students in the classroom.
“We’re here to motivate them to continue and find pride in themselves. We’re fortunate to have our language. It helps us get through hard things, because it reminds us that we’re Native, we’re still here, and we’re awesome!” Rogers said.
An earlier incarnation of the Center, formerly named the Johnson O’Malley Learning Center for one of its main funders at the time, was very influential in Rogers’ younger life and she has worked three stints at the Center previously. Her passion for the work is instantly apparent.
Due to shrinking budgets and management difficulties, the Center had closed its doors in 2013. When Rogers was hired to give it new life last September, she pondered what name would better fit what the program tries to do.
NohołDiniłayding Niwho:ngxw is the new name. Translated, it means “the place where we are acquiring skills (at this moment) in a good way.” It’s a long name, Rogers acknowledged. So they agreed to NDN Center for short.
Pratt and co-worker Thomas Gordon are academic caseworkers and mentors. Both perform one-on-one tutoring with about a dozen students, sometimes integrating them into small groups or after-school activities as well. Activities organized by the Center typically blend academics with physical and cultural activity. The Center alternates between two age groups on different weeks.
“I am most excited about the history walk-arounds they’re doing with Salish Jackson at the Library. You need to know the history of this place, and for a lot of these kids, it may be the first time they’ve been to historical sites like the villages here,” said Kerry Venegas, director of Hoopa Tribal education programs.
Each month, staff at the Center generate a new theme and plan activities around it. This month’s theme was “Let It Flow.”
The staff have facilitated youth recordings on the radio, and organized field trips with tribal entities such as fisheries in keeping with the theme. Next up, Gordon plans to lead a workshop in making sturgeon glue – a key ingredient in regalia making for Hupa people.
“It’s something I was taught how to do. I was taught that if you’re taught something, you have a responsibility to teach it to others,” Gordon said.
And that, more than anything, seems to embody the spirit of the latest reinvention of the Center.