OCEANSIDE — I was so impressed by the Hopi children. They are self-assured, poised, active, happy. The children reflect the fact that they live in small, close communities. They have this network of people, unlike our fragmented nuclear families. There is a sense of continuity with the past, even with the disruptions and incursions of the larger culture. --Malathi Sandhu, Ph.D.
Malathi Sandhu, director of MiraCosta College's Children's Center, spent a year's sabbatical on a Hopi reservation in northwestern Arizona, observing Hopi children and their families in school, home, village and ceremonial settings.
While on the reservation, Sandhu, who left her native India 25 years ago, looked closely at play themes, comparing Hopi children to the culturally diverse children--Japanese, Polynesian, black, white--at the Oceanside center. "Some play themes are universal--playing Mommy and Daddy, younger sister, brother, family," she said. "The occupational themes tended to be more restricted--doctor, nurse, police person. You don't see the fireman's theme. That's not part of what they see, whereas with our kids, that's one of the most popular."
Sandhu, who also teaches child development courses at MiraCosta, observed sharp contrasts between Hopi children and children in the mainstream culture.
"Hopi children have a sense of place, a sense of communal belonging," she said. "Even the younger ones know their clan affiliation, their extended family. If you are Hopi, you can go away, but you can also come back."
Sandhu says of conventional child-rearing methods: "There is an absence of tradition. Each generation here literally creates its own future. On the one hand, it can be quite exciting, but it's like reinventing the wheel. As a civilization, we've learned something. What's the point in having forged all this ground and having to learn some of those things again?"
Another major difference is the poise of the children, Sandhu said. "Not only do Hopi children perform in front of audiences--singing, dancing, speaking--at an early age, but they engage in competitive sporting events, such as a schoolwide track and field event, as young as ages 3, 4 and 5. I don't see our children doing this."
Entertainment for Hopi children varies, too. "The children have many Western toys, but they tend to do more large motor activities--running, climbing, because they have more open space--and work with natural materials."
Filling a Void
Sandhu's emphasis on the strengths within the Hopi culture fills a void in conventional research, according to Jay Stauss, recently appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian to California's Native American Heritage Commission (encompassing 140 California tribes and bands).
"What we've been plagued with in the past is study of the Indian family from a social problems standpoint--the poverty, alcoholism, maladjustment," Stauss said. "We need to look for strengths within a subculture, both to apply them to our own learning situations and to help teachers find ways to reach the culturally different child."
In his experience working with tribal governments, Stauss, who also is director of San Diego State University's School of Family Studies, has encountered strong positive feelings about education among American Indian parents.
"While you can't group all Indians together, education is very important to American Indian parents across the country," he said. "Most Indian parents want their children to succeed in the Anglo-dominated school system, but not to lose their own culture. There's a fine line, deeply rooted in values, but there has to be a way to teach major objectives, yet still inject culturally relevant material."
Stauss, a rural sociologist and former chairman of Indian Studies at the University of Arizona near the Hopi reservation, added, "The Hopis are one of the more traditional tribal groups, one of the stronger ones in the Southwest. The Hopis have exceptionally well-defined ways of learning, based on their strength of traditionalism, clearly defined rites of passage, roles of family members and positive marital aspects. If you were looking for a tribe to study with strong traditional values, the Hopi would be among the top five of the 350 Indian tribes and bands in the country."
Sandhu's interest in the Hopi people dates to a master's level course in anthropology at Oregon State University. (She earned her doctorate at Pennsylvania State University) when she was drawn to Hopi methods of child rearing and their unique tribal situation.
"Here was a native American group in North America (since AD 900-1200) which had never moved," she said, "had never been disrupted in a major way--an opportunity for a glimpse into the past through contact with that culture. It was a dream that fired my imagination."
When Sandhu's sister was visiting her from India 3 1/2 years ago, the two women visited the Hopi reservation, making some fortuitous contacts.