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Fulbright Scholar: Tribe Models Bilingual Intercultural Education


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,” Katz said.

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.

Written by Edward Carpenter »usfnews@usfca.edu