Self-Determination Superstar: Cochiti Takes On Language-Learning

Students celebrate “Rock Your Mocs Day” at Keres Children’s Learning Center.

Students celebrate “Rock Your Mocs Day” at Keres Children’s Learning Center.

The following article by Lyla June Johnston is republished here with permission from Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN), where it originally appeared on October 12, 2016. The Keres Children’s Learning Center at Cochiti Pueblo is a grantee partner of First Nations Development Institute.


It all started when Trisha Moquino entered the public school system as an elementary school teacher. An Indigenous woman from Cochiti, Santo Domingo and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos, she became frustrated with the school’s unwillingness to teach language and culture to Native students.

The situation hit a deeper chord when Moquino looked into her daughter’s eyes and thought of the future she wanted for her. Her 2-year-old child was fluent in the Keres language, but had no early childhood setting to continue to develop these skills.

“I thought, ‘This school will teach the Keres out of her,’” said Moquino in a recent interview.

“I was not taken seriously by the district. I went to work one day and thought, ‘Why am I working so hard as an Indian teacher to have high test scores for these children in English, and yet I’m being told at home that it’s my responsibility to give language to my child?”

It was this pivotal moment that ignited Moquino’s determination to take language revitalization into her own hands. She left the public school system and, after six years of intense planning, fundraising and trailblazing, she obtained permission from the tribal council and co-founded the Keres Children’s Learning Center — Cochiti Pueblo’s first full-immersion early childhood center.

Keres Children’s Learning Center staff, from left, are Elena Arquero, Joelle Cordero, Marie Cordero, Ann Ka-hee, Ahweyah Herrera, Trisha Moquino and Mara Matteson (sitting). (Photo by Alexander Carothers)

Keres Children’s Learning Center staff, from left, are Elena Arquero, Joelle Cordero, Marie Cordero, Ann Ka-hee, Ahweyah Herrera, Trisha Moquino and Mara Matteson (sitting). (Photo by Alexander Carothers)

“Nobody else is going to do it for us. We have to come together and do it for ourselves. We have been given money by the state for one-hour language classes. Why can’t we have full-out schools in our languages?” Moquino said.

The Realization of a Dream

Four years later, Moquino and the KCLC team hold an impressive track record. This year they’ve opened up higher grades and fully realized their dream of an intergenerational teaching and learning community. As soon as children step through the door, nothing but Keres is spoken to teach not only Western material, but also to give them fluency and knowledge of traditional skills, values and philosophy. This sprouted from Moquino’s belief that traditional knowledge does not need to be compromised for Western knowledge and vice versa.

Early childhood class of 2016 at Keres Children's Learning Center. (Photo by Alexander Carothers)

Early childhood class of 2016 at Keres Children’s Learning Center. (Photo by Alexander Carothers)

“I always cry when I tell this part of the story because we didn’t open the school in time for my daughters to attend,” Moquino said. “But I tell them they are the legacy for the school because if I did not have them the school would not exist today. It came from my experience as a mother.”

Breaking Dependency, Gaining Freedom

Federal and state standards frequently stifle the dreams of Indigenous educators like Moquino. She and the KCLC Board of Directors did not want to be beholden to outside expectations.

“We operate outside of school and teacher evaluations because we don’t take money from the state. Energy needs to go towards the mission of the school, instead of checking off things on a list made by someone at the Capitol.” To meet the school’s financial needs, numerous foundations have stepped up to ensure its success. “It’s still a struggle,” Moquino said. “These groups do not want to fund us forever. We don’t know how we will keep it running.”

Joelle Cordero working on the hundreds board with Kaydi Pecos

Joelle Cordero working on the hundreds board with Kaydi Pecos

Looking at the history, it is indeed ironic that Moquino and others can’t receive state funding and successfully revitalize their language at the same time. Under the leadership of Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in 1880, the Indian Bureau issued regulations that “all instruction must be in English” in both mission and government schools or they would lose government funding. The national and international community agrees that starving languages out of existence is an abomination and yet our nation is perpetuating these policies still today.

Despite the hardship experienced with these entities, Moquino has hope that change is on the horizon: “I think we’ll get there but it will take us longer than we want. In language revitalization, time is something we don’t have. They are not doing it intentionally, but they’re not more intentional about being inclusive either.”

To teach community leaders more about education self-determination and building schools that revitalize our languages and culture, the KCLC hosted a symposium on cross-generational models of education. The event took place on November 9, 2016, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was meant to “build awareness and capacity around Indigenous language revitalization through education using dual-language, immersion and Montessori methods rooted in community knowledge and values.”

By Lyla June Johnston, Indian Country Today Media Network

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