California could learn a thing or two about bilingual
intercultural education from the Shuar, an indigenous tribe living in the
remote Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, according to Susan Katz, professor of
international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco’s
School of Education.
Katz, back from a Fulbright research fellowship in which she
spent four months living with, interviewing and observing Shuar
teachers-in-training and teaching younger Shuar students, believes bilingual
intercultural education is working for the Shuar – who are taught both in Shuar
and Ecuador’s colonial language of Spanish.
“Bilingual intercultural education in Ecuador is an issue of
indigenous rights, much like self-determination and control over the land,”
In California, where more than a quarter of the population
speaks Spanish at home and 42 percent speak a language other than English at
home, public schools are required to teach only in English — a policy that
undermines the retention of students’ native language and culture, Katz said.
At the Instituto Superior Pedagógico Intercultural Bilingüe
Shuar-Achuar (ISPEDIBSHA) – a training ground for future Shuar teachers as well
as a K-12 school for younger students, in Ecuador’s Morona Santiago province,
where Katz conducted her research – Shuar education is “leap years” ahead of
where it was in the 1950s-’70s, when Shuar youth were punished or penalized for
speaking their native tongue. At ISPEDIBSHA, students study not only Shuar and
Spanish, but Shuar cultural customs and ceremonies.
“ISPEDIBSHA is definitely an institution that promotes pride
in being Shuar,” Katz said. “During the ceremonies and celebrations that I
experienced, cultural pride was evident in a way I’ve never seen before.”
Graduates of ISPEDIBSHA now hold office as mayors and
prefects, the latter is similar to a governor in the U.S., including in Morona
Santiago province, Katz said.
While she believes that ISPEDIBSHA is a model for bilingual
intercultural education in a number of respects, Katz did see room for
improvement and further research. Ongoing budget constraints in education and a
curriculum in which students spend significantly more time studying Spanish
than Shuar have hamstrung some of the progress made in bilingual intercultural
education in the ’80s. And when Shuar is studied it is with an historical tilt,
with less time devoted to speaking.
Recognizing that more research is needed to determine the
long-term potential of ISPEDIBSHA’s approach, Katz intends to return to Morona
Santiago province during winter break.
“I plan to look more at language use within the local Shuar
community and interview parents about their perspectives toward bilingual
intercultural education,” Katz said.
Understanding parents’ thoughts on language use: whether,
why, and how they value Shuar and Spanish, could provide key insights to
understanding why Shuar children continue to lose their Shuar language
abilities even as they grow in their knowledge of the Shuar culture and
history, Katz said.
Katz is also planning a summer student immersion to study “Indigenous
Rights, the Environment, and Education in Ecuador." The class will visit
indigenous communities that have been affected by oil contamination as well as
those that have resisted the extraction of oil and minerals from their land.
The last 10 days will be spent volunteering at ISPEDIBSHA, Katz said.