Sheilah Nicholas (Hopi) is associate professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She an advocate for the professionalization of Indigenous language teaching, and has the personal experience of first relearning her ancestral language Hopi and then becoming involved in teaching it. She specializes in the area of preparing effective teachers, who may be either native speakers or themselves second language learners.

For more information about Dr. Nicholas and her work see HERE.

Presentation title and abstract:

“We Are Feeding Them with the Nourishment They Crave and Need.”:  Professionalization of Indigenous/Heritage Language Teaching ‘Specialists’ for Language Reclamation Projects

A critical need in Indigenous/Heritage language reclamation efforts is cadres of language teachers well-prepared to assume the responsibility and enormous task of effectively ‘feeding’ and ‘nourishing’ language learners with their heritage language intimately tied to cultivating and nurturing cultural identities, a sense of belonging, well-being and spiritual fulfillment.  Current efforts are undertaken in ‘teaching’ settings—a contemporary phenomenon for tribal communities (Suina, 2004). The metaphor, ‘uncharted territory’ (Brown, 2010) best describes the professionalization (Hornberger & Swinehart, 2012) of Indigenous heritage language teaching as an endeavor/movement in ongoing development informed by shared local experiences of struggles and successes.  In this presentation, I share my 26 year journey to address this need in my home community of Hopi, located in northeastern U.S. state of Arizona, initiated by a personal aspiration to relearn the Hopi language which subsequently led to my dissertation research into the role of one’s heritage language in the contemporary present and an uncertain future.  This journey became a direct trajectory to my tumalmakiwa, the Hopi concept of ‘one’s lifework’ in Indigenous/Heritage language teacher education and professionalization in which I have been actively engaged through the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI) at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, the Indigenous Languages Institute (ILI), Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Hopi Tribe’s Hopilavayi Summer Institute (2004-2010).  These institutional and professionalization spaces have brought me in touch with Indigenous scholars, tribal educators and language practitioners from tribally diverse communities yet revealing common aspirations, struggles and needs centered in a sense of deep responsibility to attend to their heritage languages on behalf of their community youth and futures as culturally distinct peoples.

The myriad opportunities to engage with tribal community members informs my continuing work grounded in essential understandings of both the enormity as well as the reciprocal nature of the task of teaching and learning one’s Indigenous heritage language.  First, is to recognize that language teaching and learning is hard work; that together, the language learner and language speaker- or second language learner-instructor work to “recreate a speech community” that constitutes the whole system of “linguistic, social, and pragmatic (practical) rules that govern the language behavior of the speech community” (Hinton, 2001 and Wong Fillmore, 2001 in Nicholas, 2004, p. 3 respectively).  Second, is to listen to our language learners, “to look inside them because they can best tell us how they can learn and how [and why] they want to learn their community language” (ILI Symposium participant in Nicholas, 2004, p. 4); we must know our language learners.  The aspirations of language learners have enlightened, and continue to compel and apprise my work.  Third, is to undertake the work of assisting and preparing language teachers through a “cultural lens” (Kawai’ae’a, et al. 2017, p. 88) to resurface, recover, and reclaim ancestral values and knowledges encoded in our languages; these are the critical links to being Indigenous and understanding our Indigeneity and thus responsibility as caretakers, keepers and transmitters of our languages.  The self-empowering potential of professionalization experiences and spaces illuminates pathways for self-determination and sustainability in Indigenous/Heritage language teacher education.



Brown, K. (2010).  Teachers as language-policy actors:  Contending with the erasure of lesser used languages in schools.  Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 41(3), 298-314.

Hornberger, N. & Swinehart, K. (2012).  Not just situaciones de la vida:  Professionalization and Indigenous language revitalization in the Andes.  International Multilingual Research Journal, 6, pp. 35-49.

Kawaiʻaeʻa, K., Kawagley, O. & Masaoka, K. (2017).  Ke Kula Mauli Ola Hawai‘i ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Living Hawaiian Life-Force School.  In Reyhner, J., Martin, J., Lockard, L.& Sakiestewa, W. (Eds.).  Honoring our Teachers.  Flagstaff, AZ:  Northern Arizona University.  Pp. 77-98.

Nicholas, S. E. A Hopi Model of Heritage Language Teacher Preparation: The Hopilavayi             Summer Institute.  In Galla, C. K. & Romero-Little, E. (Eds.), He Waʻa Ke Kula; Na Ka ʻŌlelo E Uli (Schools are Canoes; Language Steers Them). Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium (SILS) 2014 Anthology.  (Under review).

Nicholas, S. E. (2008). Becoming “fully” Hopi: The role of the Hopi language in the         contemporary lives of Hopi youth—A Hopi case study of language shift and vitality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, American Indian Studies Program, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Nicholas, S. E. (2004). “Knowing our language learners.”  Handbook 5, Awakening our languages:  ILI Handbook Series.  Indigenous Language Institute (ILI):  Santa Fe, NM.

Suina, J. (2004). Native language teachers in a struggle for language and culture survival. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 35(3), pp. 281-302.