First Navajo doctor at University
of Mississippi knows a cultural language difference from a speech
Davis E. Henderson and his mentor, Dr. Laida Restrepo, during
his hooding ceremony at Arizona State University in Tempe.
(photo courtesy Shelly Gray)
Dr. Davis E. Henderson is leaving Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico,
to take up his appointment as an assistant professor in the Department
of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the University
of Mississippi. He will be the first Navajo hired by the department
and will join four other American Indians who serve on the faculty
at Ole Miss.
Dr. Teresa Carithers, interim chair of the Department of Communication
Sciences & Disorders, said, "We are very excited to welcome
Dr. Henderson to the department. He comes to us as a teacher scholar
credentialed and experienced in his clinical discipline, with an
exciting original and innovative research agenda which has focused
on the Navajo population. He also brings knowledge and passion for
the importance of understanding the interrelationship of culture
to teaching, research and practice."
Henderson's three sisters and parents will be going with him
as he fulfills a dream that began two decades ago when he was living
in a dorm for American Indian kids attending Aztec High School.
By his senior year, Henderson had completed all but one English
class, "but they wouldn't allow me to go back to the dorm and just
hang out and watch TV all day. They said I either had to go to school
from home, which was two hours away, so that wasn't an option, or
add more courses and stay at school all day." He volunteered for
peer tutoring and was assigned to a special needs student. "I worked
with him individually and noticed that he would sometimes leave
the classroom with another teacher. I found out he was seeing a
speech and language pathologist. I watched her work with him and
I really fell in love with what she was doing and I thought to myself,
that is what I want to do."
Two years at Diné
College in Crownpoint, New Mexico earned Henderson an associate's
degree in elementary education and liberal arts, then he transferred
to the University of New Mexico
to earn a bachelor's in speech and hearing sciences. "It was a very
big transition," he recalled. "At Diné College we had only
10 or 15 people in a class. My first biology course at UNM was in
a huge auditorium with approximately 250 students. It was something
very unexpected, but I adjusted quite well." He said going to class
each day and being aware that this environment was going to be his
everyday reality helped.
Davis E. Henderson will be heading to the University of Mississippi.
He is the first Navajo to join the staff there.
After UMN, Henderson took a year off. "To be a speech language
pathologist you had to have your master's. I wasn't really keen
on going to get my master's. I decided to work in a non-profit organization
with special needs children in Gallup, New Mexico. A lot of people
were saying maybe you should at least try to get your master's.
But I knew how competitive the field was; I didn't know if my GRE
scores would be high enough to compete." He finally applied to Central
Michigan University and tried not to have any expectations about
the outcome. When the letter finally came, he left it on the table
unopened for a week.
"I went there for two years," he said, "and that was another
huge transition, going from New Mexico to Michigan. It started snowing
in October, and I asked my classmate, 'Why is it snowing? it's only
October.'" She said it was normal. Both the early snow and the summer
humidity were tough and though he enjoyed the school, he packed
up his car and drove straight home as soon as he graduated in 2007.
He got a job with the Gallup-McKinley
County Schools and there began the work that would shape his
research and career for the next several years. Working as a speech
and language pathologist, Henderson found that it was almost impossible
to "graduate" Navajo children from the program. "It was very difficult
to exit Navajo children out of speech therapy. We would see they
were making gains, but then we had to use a standardized assessment
and those assessments were not appropriate," so the kids did not
pass, he explained.
The required tests, Henderson said, "did not take into account
the linguistic characteristics of Navajo children. Often their first
language is English, but we carry over Navajo speech sounds into
our English speech sounds. So when we speak, our Navajo
language becomes apparent and often speech and language pathologists
who are not aware of these characteristics will identify Navajo
children as having a speech impairment or speech impediment when
they do not.
"For example, in the Navajo language we do not have the r sound.
But in English we do have the r sound. So a Navajo child who spends
a lot of time with their grandparents who do not produce the r sound
will probably not produce that sound in English. When we gave the
assessment we would say this child still has a speech impairment
when it's not an impairmentit's a cultural language difference."
In May, Henderson graduated from Arizona
State University with a Ph.D. For his dissertation, he investigated
using a dynamic assessmentwhich involves a pre-test, a teaching
intervention and a post-testto evaluate Navajo preschoolers'
language status. "We found that the dynamic assessment does indeed
differentiate between Navajo children with language impairment and
Navajo children with typical developing language. This is a better
way to identify Navajo children who need services rather than using
the traditional standardized assessments."
Davis E. Henderson, Miss Indian ASU and fellow Native peers
at Arizona State University. (photo courtesy Jennifer Jones)
Henderson will be teaching at Ole Miss and pursuing his research
into creating speech and language assessments for Navajo children
that accurately reflect their abilities. "What I would like to do
is to look at the speech sounds Navajo people producehow do
they produce the English sounds, what Navajo influences carry over
into their English that should not be counted as errors but as cultural
speech differences?" His work would have implications for speech
and language assessments for children from other tribes as well.
He also wants to look at how speech and language pathologists can
implement and incorporate cultural values into their interventions
for a Native population.
But the first challenge, Henderson said, is to figure out what
The University of Mississippi's Department of Communication
Sciences & Disorders offers a fully accredited graduate program
that develops entry level speech language pathology professionals,
students transitioning into audiology and graduate research venues.
The department admits 30-35 graduate students per year and now has
over 400 undergraduates enrolled for the upcoming academic year,
according to Carithers.