Goodyear Man & the Zuni language
andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Fri Jul 14 02:38:39 UTC 2006
Goodyear man saves the Zuni language from extinction
Puts it in writing
Christine L. Romero
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 13, 2006 12:00 AM
The boxes of documents were tucked away when the government found
Curtis Cook on the Internet.
The papers the Goodyear man had created with the help of seven Zuni
elders had not been forgotten but were collecting dust.
They held the origins of the written Zuni language. They represented
15 years of Cook's life and work. And now, at last, the Library of
Congress wanted them.
After Cook finished some graduate linguistic studies in the
mid-1960s, he set out to create a Zuni version of the Bible. But he
quickly realized the language didn't have a written form. So he
turned his attention to a more basic task: creating a Zuni alphabet,
setting down in written form the Zuni language.
Without Cook's efforts, the Zuni language could have perished as the
elders died and young Zunis forgot the tongue. Forgetting the
language would have forever cut a tie between the generations of
Zunis, who live predominantly in New Mexico and in Arizona east of
"I became concerned that many of their old stories and the richness
of their history would be lost to posterity as the elders, who were
the storytellers, began to die off," Cook said. The elders were all
older than 100 when Cook began his work.
The Library of Congress' intention is to preserve the work and
eventually make the traditional Zuni stories more widely available.
Cook's work has allowed the Zunis to teach their written language to
children from kindergarten through high school on the reservation.
The Zuni words are even on street signs, which Cook proudly notes are
By the end of this year, The Curtis Cook Collection is expected to be
finally inducted into the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center.
During his time on the reservation, Cook also approached the Zuni
Tribal Council and suggested that some of the tribe's stories should
be recorded and preserved. The council agreed and eventually, about
300 reel-to-reel tapes were created with Zuni oral histories, folk
tales and religious teachings.
The Curtis Cook Collection will include those tapes, transcriptions,
learning guides and some Zuni publications.
Now at 67, Cook is the associate state director of community outreach
for AARP Arizona. Previously, he was director of the National Indian
Council on Aging.
When Cook talks about his time with the Zuni, known as "a friendly
people," his eyes light up and seem to dance with respect and
Cook, also known as the Locust, wears turquoise Native-styled rings
on his hands. In telling traditional Zuni stories, he infuses
rhythmic Zuni words with English ones. To the English-speaking ear,
the Zuni language seems breathy and includes many pauses that
translate into meaning.
On the reservation, Cook's constant chattering and repetition of Zuni
words and phrases earned him the names the Mockingbird and later the
Locust among the Zuni Pueblo, now around 10,000 people.
Language experts say there likely still are pockets of the world
where some languages exist only orally.
Cook's intent was to create a Zuni version of the Bible. Other oral
traditions have morphed into written languages in a similar
missionary fashion, experts say.
"Oral tradition keeps certain kinds of intergenerational contacts,"
said Guha Shankar, folklife specialist with the American Folklife
Center. "It keeps memories alive."
Without written documentation, the Zuni oral tradition could have
been lost, Shankar said.
Cook's work piqued the Library of Congress' interest because he
collaborated directly with native speakers in the pueblo, Shankar said.
"The difficulty with some cultural communities is that as older
speakers of the language pass away, the future generations aren't as
likely to pick it up," he said.
"Then you have some suggesting that the language might not be around
for future generations."
Cook meticulously made language records, including transcribing
traditional stories passed down through the generations. Cook learned
these stories from several generations, including the oldest that
included a handful of men older than 100 who knew these tales by heart.
"I was concerned that all of their history would be lost forever,"
"My belief is when people get their language in writing it launches a
whole new era. We take notes so we can remember."
Cook used the International Phonetic Alphabet, a commonly accepted
series of symbols among linguists, to capture the Zuni language.
It took Cook only about six months to learn the language, he said.
He admits he's one of those people who is gifted in linguistics. He
studied Latin and "ate it up."
The Zunis loved to see the language in print, he said. Reading became
something of a novelty on the reservation. He taught a young boy to
read in Zuni and soon the boy was going from house to house simply
"He became a rock star with the Zunis because he could read and the
older people couldn't," Cook said.
Cook contends that the symbols themselves aren't sacred. What is
sacred is the process by which an oral tradition becomes fixed in
time with written symbols and how that affects the perception of the
"It becomes sacred when you start communicating," Cook said. "I think
there's something that happens when it moves from the mind to the
head to the heart."
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