Native students study Tewa with mentor Laura Kaye Eagles, a seventh grade literature teacher at Santa Fe Preparatory School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Documentary Follows Native Students Learning and Preserving Tewa Language

Vincent Schilling

In November 2009, Santa Fe Preparatory School in Santa Fe, New Mexico sent out a newsletter announcing a self-study curriculum in which Native teenagers would study the Tewa language with the help of a mentor. When producer/director Aimée Broustra heard about it she decided to make a documentary.

“I knew this would be a story of inspiration and hope and it was a story that needed to be told,” Broustra said during a radio interview on Talk 1260 KTRC.

“The teenagers in The Young Ancestors are motivated and enthusiastic about learning because they understand the symbiotic relationship between language and culture; that one cannot survive for too long without the other,” Broustra says on the documentary’s website, “In a broader context the documentary explores the burgeoning movement by Native Americans to revitalize their native languages in tribes throughout America.”

Of Irish descent, Broustra says she is familiar with oppression.

“I was raised Irish Catholic, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Growing up, I had two different experiences of what it meant to be Irish Catholic. My mother spoke at length of the history of the Irish people and their oppression under the English: the seizure of land owned by Irish Catholics, the loss of the Celtic language and tradition,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Even in the town in which I grew up, just outside Philadelphia, the church was built in the middle of the block because the no one wanted to sell the prime corner location to Irish Catholics. My grandmother, who lived with us, left northern Ireland at age 17, forbidden by her parents to marry the Protestant man she loved.”

Though there are differences in the backgrounds between the Irish and Natives, her history helped her grasp nuances in the film without having to ask for explanations.

In the film, the Native youth, who are all Tewa, spend hours learning the Tewa language with mentor Laura Kaye Eagles, a seventh grade literature teacher at Santa Fe Prep. The pilot program is administered with the Indigenous Language Institute to help revitalize Native languages. The students get language credit for studying Tewa, as opposed to studying French or Spanish.

“We’re Native American, that’s who we are and we’re proud of it. We have that tradition backing us up,” Jordan Naranjo says in the film.

“I could hear my ancestors before but now that I am learning the language, I feel connected with my ancestors in everything I do,” Jeremy Montoya says.

In addition to embracing tradition, Broustra offers eye-opening statistics in the film. While there are tribes engaged in revitalizing their languages, many tribal languages are close to endangered and will not survive if the young people don’t start speaking them. On a global scale, a language disappears every 14 days.

The Young Ancestors was recently named an official selection of the 2012 White Sands International Film Festival being held August 22 to 26. The Young Ancestors will be screened August 24 at 1 p.m. at the Cineport 10, 700 Telshor Boulevard, in Las Cruces, New Mexico as part of the festival. Following the film, Broustra will lead a Q&A session with the audience.

Watch the trailer here:

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There is a very dangerous thought process among our people, which goes something like this: "Everyone is losing their language. Indigenous people all over the world are losing their languages. Therefore it is okay if I don't learn or speak my language." This is how losers think and this is the wrong way of thinking. In our language class, out of thousands only one or two people attend. The rest don't bother because they think the above thoughts. And another thing, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as Native Americans. We are Indian or Lakota or Navajo or whatever. We are not anything American. If we think of ourselves as a hyphenated American, the others will say, oh, we have the African Americans and the Mexican Americans and the Native Americans and will bracket us along with other Americans. Do we want that?