PALA — Nestled in the back of San Antonio Mission on the Pala Reservation and surrounded by grove-covered hills, a small frame building houses the Pala State Pre-School.
It is morning, and director Brenda Mojado, 41, a kindly woman with long black hair pulled back to reveal delicate green beaded earrings, is leading a few of the 16 children who are in this morning's session in what she describes as a moccasin dance. She sings the chant/song which she has composed, as the youngsters heel/toe and move in slow rhythm.
"Now get ready to become eagles," she says, as the children drop to the ground, cover their heads, then slowly rise with arms outspread like wings. "Eagle, fly high, higher high," she chants in a slow melody as the children circle the room, sweeping the air with imaginary wings.
Look for food on the ground.
It's all around.
Take the food to your nest.
Come back and finally rest.
They swoop around the classroom and finally all light in separate places that feel just right to each eagle/child.
" 'Eagle Fly' talks about sacred eagle power in the native American culture," Mojado said. "Many of these children go to powwows and other religious ceremonies. The moccasin dance helps them identify with their culture--and helps the non-Indian children know and understand the culture."
The preschool is part of Educational Enrichment Systems, a private, nonprofit corporation, and is financed through the state Department of Education. It serves low-income families. Currently, 44 children, 3 and 4 years old, from a population of about 500 residents, attend each day in morning and afternoon sessions.
The children are predominately Indian (Luiseno and Cupeno in most cases), with a few Latino and some Anglo. They come from Pala Reservation, nearby Pauma Valley (including Pauma Reservation), local dairies and the other five reservations that are within 15 miles of the school.
According to Charlene Richardson, executive director of the local office of Child Development Associates Inc., Pala State Pre-School is the only nursery school on a reservation in San Diego County.
"It is important to have such a service for the child right on the reservation and run by a native American in a culturally appropriate way," she said. "It speaks to the state department's interest in quality care for children."
Father Xavier Colleoni of the San Antonio Mission, which has served the Indian population since 1816, says Mojado's school helps the children keep their traditions as well as move forward.
"The nursery school prepares them for kindergarten here at the mission," he said. "It is a great help for the people around here, because they are very poor."
Mojado, from the Ute tribe in Utah, started the preschool in 1965, soon after marrying Richard Mojado of the Pala Reservation (he is Cupeno) and moving to the area.
"At the time, the only available school for the children of the area was an elementary school 14 miles from the reservation," Mojado says. The mission now has a school from kindergarten to eighth grade. Mojado also started a Headstart program in 1967 on the mission grounds. Although they are not officially connected, the two preschools share a playground, and teachers often share ideas.
Today Mojado, herself the mother of two, has seen many children go from her preschool to the mission school, and a few have gone on to Palomar College, for which she credits the Outreach Program of the American Indian Studies Department at Palomar.
"Most tend to stay in the area, though," she says. A former student of Mojado's recently registered her own preschooler for the program.
Mojado's approach is a blend of traditional preschool education, mixed with the stories, songs, legends and history of Indian people--all blended with a strong multicultural slant that embraces the diversity of many cultures, including Irish, Eastern European, African, Vietnamese, Jewish and Mexican.
One of her favorite teaching tools is a book with pictures of people of all races from all parts of the world. "The children know they can look at this book any time they want to," Mojado said.
She pointed in the book to a picture of a red-haired boy with freckles. "The children were very interested in him," she said, because most of the children here are dark.
"We do a lot of multicultural work, because we're so far out," Mojado said. "The nearest town is Escondido. These children need to know there are others beside those they see here. They need to know who they are--who others are--and how they fit in the community."
To emphasize Indian culture, she invites a grandmother from the reservation each year to come and tell the children stories from the tribe. "And we have dress-up clothes, including traditional Indian shirts for the children to put on," she said.