Language Preservation Helps American Indian Students Stick With College

Tim Goral's picture
Monday, March 19, 2012

Michael Murphy was a self-described "troublemaker" who wasn't sure about leaving the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians' reservation for college. He filled out only one application, to nearby California State University,San Marcos.

Murphy, now a sophomore and chairman of the American Indian Student Alliance on that campus, credits the student group with helping him feel welcome and making him want to stay in college.

"I would've dropped out the first semester" without that connection, said Murphy, a 20-year-old business major who plans to run for his tribe's council some day.

Educators say that confronting cultural differences is one of the challenges facing American Indian students in higher education. CSU San Marcos, which counts about 40 tribes in its service area, has launched a new California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center aimed at strengthening relationships between the tribes and the campus. The center's ultimate goal is to boost the retention and graduation rates of American Indian students statewide.

Among the center's first efforts is a language preservation project with the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians in northern San Diego County, made possible by a $40,000 gift from the tribe. Through the project, staff members and students like Murphy have gone to the Pauma reservation to collect photographs and record the native language once predominantly spoken by tribal members.

Then they uploaded the photos and recordings onto cartridges as songs, images, prayers, quizzes and stories, and distributed the cartridges to families on the reservation for use on a Nintendo DSi. A picture of a big brown bear, for instance, appears with the Luiseño word for bear, "hunwut."

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