Tuscarora on the wane

Mark Fettes mfettes at magi.com
Mon Mar 4 18:14:00 UTC 1996

The following article appeared in the Canadian newspaper "The Globe and
Mail" on March 1, 1996. Not much that's new to this list, but a good piece
of reporting.

Incidentally, don't put much stock in the figures from the 1988 report "You
Took My Talk". They were taken, without attribution, from a 1982 paper by
Michael Foster, and are simply based on estimated numbers of speakers (any
language with fewer than 5,000 speakers is rated as threatened, without any
consideration of retention rates or the cultural vitality of the
communities involved).

Mark Fettes
mfettes at magi.com


Vanishing languages imperil native culture

SURVIVAL / To remove the mode of transmitting
ideas is to destroy a people, Indians say.


Native Affairs Reporter
 HELEN Salter, 93, lay dying in a Toronto hospital in December, and her
passing was to mean more than a family's grief over the loss of a loved one.
   When her spirit finally left her body, a language also took a small step
closer to death.
   Mrs. Salter was believed to be the last person in Canada to speak
Tuscarora fluently, those familiar with the language say.
   One of the languages of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy,
Tuscarora is one of 2,000 to 3,000 languages around that world that are
moving - seemingly inexorably - toward extinction.
   In a world fretting about overpopulation, paradoxically up to half of all
spoken languages are in danger of disappearing forever.
   According to New Scientist magazine, the planet is home to about 6,000
languages, but only 600 are considered to be safe.
   The vast majority of the world's languages are spoken by only a small
number of people, and the magazine says up to half of these languages could
disappear within the next century as the few remaining speakers die.
   Five languages have come to dominate the Earth: Chinese, English,
Spanish, Russian and Hindi are spoken by half the world's population.
   If 100 other languages are added, the total covers 95 per cent of what is
spoken by the world's 5.7 billion people.
   In Canada, the percentage of the population that speaks neither of the
two official languages of English and French is rising steadily as
immigrants bring their own languages with them, Statistics Canada says.
   But among aboriginal people, the situation is reversed. Native languages
are falling rapidly to the onslaught of English.
   Of Canada's 53 native languages, 43 were classified as on the "verge of
extinction" in a 1990 report of the House of Commons standing committee on
aboriginal affairs. An additional seven were listed as threatened.
   Only three - Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut - are considered to have an
excellent chance of survival, said the committee's report, entitled You Took
My Talk: Aboriginal Literacy and Empowerment.
   In California, there has been a backlash against the immigration- spurred
proliferation of languages and calls for the official recognition of the
Hispanic language.
   Some experts argue that moving to a few common languages improves
communication and fosters a better understanding among people in the world.
   But Joanne Weinhotz, a teacher at the Tuscarora School near Lewiston,
N.Y., said language is more than just communication. "It opens up our
understanding of how we think."
   If the Tuscarora language disappears, Ms. Weinholtz said, a full insight
into Tuscarora culture and thinking will be lost forever.
   What will also be gone is the diversity of views about the world and
life, said Amos Key, the language director of the Woodlands Cultural Centre
at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont.
   Mr. Key said each language reflects a different cultural "world view,"
and that is what is being lost - sometimes deliberately eliminated - in the
drift toward a few common languages.
   "If you want to destroy a people, you get their language first. Then
there is no mode to transmit ideas or concepts," he said. "If you want to
have another world view, you get rid of the language and bring in another
language, and that brings in another world view."
   Mr. Key, who launched a rescue program for Iroquoian languages 10 years
ago, said there are 127 Cayuga speakers left on the reserve, 80 Mohawk
speakers, 36 Onondaga and one Seneca, as well as 245 Oneida at another
reserve near London, Ont.
   He said he had thought Mrs. Salter's brother, Robert Mount Pleasant, who
died in 1994, was the last Tuscarora speaker in Canada. It wasn't until two
months before her death that he discovered that Mrs. Salter, who was living
in Toronto, was the last one in her family to be fluent in the language.
"Now she's gone."
   Mrs. Salter's daughter, Pat Turner, said her mother and her older
brothers and sisters spoke Tuscarora among themselves. But while Mrs.
Salter's younger siblings were able to understand the language, they would
always reply in English.
   Mr. Key said the reason it is so difficult to track down the last
speakers is that for years many of the elderly often hid the fact that they
spoke one of the Iroquoian languages.
   That is a direct result of a century of deliberate policies by the
federal government, church residential schools and the public-education
system to eradicate aboriginal languages, he said.
   "I truly believe my people were persecuted, socially, spiritually and
morale-wise. That's why the languages went underground," he said. "My
parents were punished for speaking their language, and they had horror
stories to tell me about strapping."
   Meno Boldt, a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge in
Alberta, agrees that soon a very few aboriginal languages will be left if
the current trend continues.
   "There is this idea that languages will survive inadvertently . . .
simply because they have stayed alive this long," said Prof. Boldt, the
author of a book entitled Surviving as Indians: The Challenge of Self-
Government, which is based on his 25 years of study.
   "That is just wrong . . . because all the trends show this is not going
to be the case."
   The Tuscaroras, a once-powerful tribe in the Carolinas, first lived in
peace with settlers. But enroachments by settlers and the kidnapping of
Tuscarora youth for slavery provoked them into a military conflict that
decimated the tribe. The survivors began a 90-year-long migration north,
where in 1722 they became the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy.
   After the American Revolution, those who supported the British fled to
the Six Nations Reserve on the Grand River in Ontario while those who sided
with the Americans ended up on a reservation just across the border at
Lewiston, N.Y.
   Now, the reservation near Lewiston is the last Tuscarora bastion outside
of a small population in North Carolina. At the Tuscarora School, teachers
are working with a few remaining elders to try to teach children the
   Ms. Weinhotz said most of the current generation of parents have already
lost the language, and it is only a very few elderly people who still speak
it fluently on the reservation.
   But most will not speak it publicly, she said. "Many of the old-timers
won't even let you in the door."
   Preserving the language in the form of a dictionary is not good enough,
she said, because what is lost are the nuances and different phrasing in the
   Ms. Weinhotz and teacher Betsy Bissell are regular visitors to Tuscarora
elder Howard Hill, 73, who is drafting his own Tuscarora dictionary and
helping the teachers and students.
   Mr. Hill said that as a child he spoke only Tuscarora until he was sent
to school and suddenly found it forbidden. "We would hide in a closet to
speak Tuscarora, because if we got caught, we'd be hit."
   Efforts are being made to videotape and record the language, but even so,
it is clear that much is already lost.
   There is no recorded version of the oratorial flights of speech that were
once used by Tuscarora leaders in grand assemblies. Also largely gone is
language once used in elaborate religious ceremonies.
   What is now being recorded at the 11th hour are everyday words of
Tuscarora that were used in conversations between family and friends.
   Despite the effort, it is an open question whether teachers at the
Tuscarora School will be able to preserve a record of enough of that
conversational Tuscarora to enable it to survive, or whether written
dictionaries and pronunciation charts will be all that remain for future

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list