Terrance Gomez recently graduated from Vista Grande High School and was the first student out of the school to receive a “State Seal of Bilingualism” from the state of New Mexico in the Tiwa language.
Gomez took on the task of earning his seal on top of his normal school class load; he’s been working on achieving this certification since childhood. Of the seven districts and charters approved by the state for seal requests in 2017, Vista Grande was the only school awarded the seal in a tribal language for the year, according to school director Isabelle St. Onge.
The program for Native American languages is relatively new.
“Everything we do at the Pueblo is spoken in Tiwa, especially traditions,” said Gomez. “Without the language, you wouldn’t be able to communicate what’s going on and you’d be lost.”
Tiwa is the traditional language spoken on Taos Pueblo and a few others, including Picuris, Sandia, Isleta and Ysleta del Sur in Texas, with different dialects between the northern and southern pueblos. Tiwa is part of the Tanoan-Kiowa family of languages, along with Tewa and Towa.
The Tiwa language is heavily tied in with the culture and tradition of the pueblos and is not available in any written form. To learn the language, one must grow up around it, become familiar with the sounds and practice speaking it every day, according to Gomez.
Bilingualism seals are granted to students who are proficient in an additional language besides English and must prove comprehension and proficiency in the language. Once students graduate high school, a seal is printed on their diplomas indicating their achievements.
While the seal is issued by the state, Taos Pueblo officials are authorized to sign off on an actual recommendation to approve Gomez for the designation. In order to be approved by the Pueblo, Gomez had to stand before a council of officials while they asked questions in Tiwa and he responded to affirm he understood and could speak the language. Gomez began speaking the language as a child and was pushed and coached by his grandfather, who says Tiwa is extremely sacred and important to their culture.
“There’s a lot of families and kids growing up who don’t know how to speak our native tongue, and that’s pretty sad,” said Gomez’s grandfather, David G. Gomez. “I’ve been stressing it for quite a long time now, making sure the tribe doesn’t lose their native tongue.”
David Gomez said that, although it is hard to pinpoint, he estimates up to half of the children in the tribe may not be able to speak or understand Tiwa. Because of this, he has worked extensively with his grandchildren, assuring they understand and are able to speak the language in order to preserve that aspect of the culture. In addition, he mentioned that because the language was sacred to the Pueblo, he didn’t wish to speak too much on the subject and preferred to simply cover the basics.
With architectural dreams on the horizon for the recent graduate, Gomez plans to attend University of New Mexico-Taos to polish off some general education credits. He has aspirations to head to Fort Lewis, Colorado, to finish his degree. Inspired by the overall facade and design of buildings in general and with a legacy of construction in his family, Gomez said he wants to pursue his degree in architecture. While continuing his education, Gomez understands the importance of his language and culture and thanks his family members for their support along the way.
“It’s been a real amazing experience,” said Gomez on the Tiwa language. “From just hearing it, not understanding what it is and then, all of the sudden, you understand it.”
Gomez was required to complete a senior project for Vista Grande High School and elected to construct a bow from raw materials. Using wood from an oak tree, he made a usable bow with arrows. During his high school graduation on May 19, Gomez was presented with a bolo tie from Taos Pueblo officials and was met with glowing faces of the governing members.
“It’s just amazing to be acknowledged like that,” Gomez said.