Gathering To Talk (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Sun Apr 3 05:20:38 UTC 2005

Tribal delegates gather to talk about saving their language

By Chet Barfield

April 2, 2005

YUMA, Ariz. – In a conference hall echoing with chanted songs almost as
old as the nearby Colorado River, hundreds of American Indians are
rekindling a fundamental flame of their diverse but related cultures.

They're trying to save their language.

About 300 tribal delegates from Southern California, western Arizona and
northern Mexico are here to help revive and sustain the Yuman language,
the root of dialects spoken by the Kumeyaay, Cocopah and more than a
dozen other tribes from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific Ocean.

These are oral languages with no alphabet. Elders who grew up with them
are dying off. And kids on reservations today have many other

"We realize we're just a generation away from our languages becoming
extinct," said Emilio Escalanti, councilman for the Yuma-area Quechan
tribe and a coordinator of this week's fourth annual Yuman Family
Language Summit.

"What makes us Quechan (pronounced KWUT-san) is our Quechan language,"
he said. "Otherwise we would be like Joe Public. But we're not. We were
created to be here, in this spot in the world.'"

At the three-day conference, which ends today at the Yuma Civic and
Convention Center, participants are sharing songs, dances and stories.
They're weaving grass baskets and bark skirts.

And they're learning innovative ways, new and old, that native language
can be restored in their communities.

It might be with a computer video of an elder singing a song, with
scrolled words that can be clicked to display pronunciation and

Or, as the Grand Canyon-area Hualapais are doing, it can be done through
traditional games dating back hundreds of years.

Tribal groups are creating words for things that didn't exist in
aboriginal times. The Hualapai word for computer, says elder Lucille
Watahomigie, is derived from "metal thing where you store writing."

Indians must walk in both worlds, ancient and modern, said Cheryle
Beecher, a Hualapai family-services worker.

"Things are changing. Our language is changing," she said.

"We need to hold onto our culture and teach our children that way."

Indian gaming helps and hinders.

Casino proceeds fund cultural-enrichment programs and pay expenses for
delegates to attend conferences such as this. At the same time, soaring
profits are pushing some tribes more and more toward capitalistic values
and away from their roots.

A cultural historian at Barona, Larry Banegas, says it's hard to get
more than 10 to 12 tribal members in his Kumeyaay language classes.
"They're too busy, off looking at other things," he said.

Since the arrival of Europeans, natives have struggled to maintain
identity while pushed to assimilate.

Until recent decades, Indian children were sent to boarding schools,
stripped of their language and rituals.

Today, leaders say, external forces on tribal youth are less blatant but
just as strong: party drugs, popular music, the Internet, consumerism.

"They're pressured with things that are not part of our tradition," said
Edmund Domingues, vice chairman of the Cocopah tribe southwest of Yuma.

"Our language," he said, "is what establishes ourselves as Cocopah. This
is what establishes ourselves as unique."

Chet Barfield: (619) 542-4572; chet.barfield at

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