Goodyear Man & the Zuni language

Andre Cramblit 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  
spelled correctly.

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,"  
Cook said.

"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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