Mila Padilla grew up in Shiwina (Zuni village) and heard Zuni spoken on the playground and from her grandmother. She never attempted to speak it herself until she moved in with her grandmother, where it was required. She did everything with her grandmother, from cooking and gardening to attending church and praying. By the time her grandmother had passed, the Zuni language and culture had been instilled in Mila.
Zuni, who call themselves A:shiwi, have dwelled in Halona I:diwana, the Middle Place of the World, in western New Mexico, where the tribe settled after many years of searching for the Middle Place. Today, the tribe is considered one of the most intact in existence, with many members living at Zuni Pueblo.
While working at NACA, i met Zuni students who did not speak the language because of the disconnect to growing up in the city, like my own children learning the language would create a challenge and like myself a second language learner, I would be able to understand the challenge of learning the language.
Mila was working with urban Indian youth at Native American Community Academy when she met A:shiwi youth who did not speak Shiwi’ma Bena:we (Zuni language). A second language learner herself, she understood the challenge of learning the language, and she was willing to take the lead in teaching them.
Teaching language means understanding language and changes that occur within a language such as shift, maintenance, and revitalization. Mila understood each of these when she received her bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of New Mexico. After passing an oral exam conducted by the Zuni language board, she became certified by the tribe to teach Zuni. She now teaches at Albuquerque Public Schools to students grades 2 through 8.
About 30 students currently participate in Mila’s class. She has seen immense growth in her students. They are teaching their peers how to say introductions and are explaining basic concepts about the language. This year, they have learned songs, which has attracted more students and allowed them to learn more difficult words.
“When a child learns to introduce themself in a community setting, it empowers that child to know they belong to a family, they belong to a clan and a sovereign nation.”
Mila has used the pandemic as an opportunity to teach the trials and tribulations of the Zuni ancestors. She shares the history of how they found the place where their village is now, and the hardships that came with their travels. Their people regard the Grand Canyon, specifically Ribbon Falls, as a place of emergence. Students become able to name the sacred places with the Shiwi (Zuni) name, such as they call Grand Canyon “Kuni a’le a:kwin.” She instills in her students that they, too, are resilient as their ancestors.
“We have our language, culture, prayers and songs we have to hold onto to get through this. It will be okay.”
Mila may have learned the intricacies of the Zuni language from her grandmother, but the cultural knowledge she learned from her parents. She’s still learning herself. She did not acquire the language until she was twelve years old. She can relate with her students who think the language is hard, but she also knows it takes practice and can be a lifelong learning experience.
“It is my wish that my students will embrace the language of their ancestors and hold it close to them, so they can always be secure in their identity, especially when they become adults.”