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Sun Jun 25 18:10:47 UTC 2006
old ways, old words
New speakers of ancient tongues
Indian tribes find teaching is last hope for saving native languages
By Lourdes Medrano
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.17.2006
As time treks through Indian country, the words of ancient songs and
sacred rituals crumble under the weight of the dominant language.
"I hear more and more English on the reservation," said Danny Lopez,
who teaches Tohono O'odham at the Sells community college. "A lot of
children don't know our language anymore."
But a language revival of sorts has gripped many American Indian
tribes working to keep their mother tongues vibrant.
Just southwest of Tucson, in the San Xavier District of the Tohono
O'odham Nation, children and their parents learn the language of
their ancestors in special classes. In Nebraska, Ho-Chunk youths
absorb an elder's words preserved in 1,500 audiotapes about life on
the reservation. In Montana, mothers immerse their newborns and
toddlers in a new language program.
They are some of the initiatives being discussed this month at the
University of Arizona, where 20 tribal members hope to learn how to
preserve declining indigenous languages. "Gathering Talk:
Documenting, Describing and Revitalizing Our Languages" is the theme
of the American Indian Language Development Institute this summer.
The residential program has offered training since 1979 to teachers
of indigenous languages. But institute director Ofelia Zepeda said it
is the first time tribal members have received a fellowship from the
National Science Foundation to focus on language preservation.
The fellows represent languages from a number of American Indian
tribes, including Oneida, Ho-Chunk, Blackfeet, Coushatta, Sahaptin,
Southern Ute, Cheyenne, Laguna-Keres, Okanagan, Tohono O'odham and
The decline of indigenous languages has been well documented, but "of
late we're having more tribes acknowledge it," Zepeda said.
She and other linguists say the reasons for language loss are
complex. But they note that American Indian languages historically
were suppressed in government attempts to assimilate tribes into
In 1995, the Alaska Native Language Center found that of 175
indigenous languages still spoken in the United States, 155 were
moribund because children no longer learned them.
"It's a huge loss," noted Zepeda, who is Tohono O'odham. "Young
people are not learning their language, but that's because the adults
are not using it."
Growing up, that was certainly the case for Don Preston, an artist
who grew up away from the Tohono O'odham Reservation. He returned as
an adult and since March has attended a weekly language class in the
evening at the San Xavier District Education Center.
"My parents never taught me, and I always wanted to learn to speak my
own language," said Preston, 52. "It's like going back to my own roots."
Jodi Burshia, one of the fellows at the university, said she also
wants to learn the language of her ancestors. Her ancestry includes
Pueblo, Navajo, Sioux, Chippewa and French Canadian, but she speaks
none of the languages.
"I want to know about all of them," said Burshia, who grew up with
the Laguna Pueblo people in New Mexico and now lives in Tucson.
Burshia, like the other fellows, is learning how to write effective
grant proposals to secure outside funding for language documentation
when tribal money falls short. She said she hopes to help collect and
preserve letters, tapes and other documents in her Laguna community.
Marvin Weatherwax, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in northwestern
Montana, said the death of elders in the past two years has meant a
drop in the number of fluent native speakers to 350 from 500.
Eighteen new speakers were gained in the past five years, said
Weatherwax, who teaches language at his reservation's community college.
Last summer, the UA fellow said, he determined by knocking on doors
that 1,500 tribal members understand Blackfeet but rarely speak it.
He calls them "sleepers," and his goal is to reawaken their knowledge
about the language so they can share it with youngsters.
"We can't lose our language," said Weatherwax, 59. "Without it, you
lose pretty much your identity, you lose pretty much everything."
In the Ho-Chunk Nation of Nebraska, Caroline Frenchman, another
fellow, said tribal members teach the language to students from
preschool to college two to three times a week.
"But that is not enough," she said.
Five fluent speakers remain among the roughly 2,600 enrolled members
in the state, she said. To stir interest in the language, tribal
members are digitizing the 1,500 audiotapes that a late elder,
Stanford Whitewater, left behind. Frenchman said Whitewater's
recordings contain a wealth of language lessons and tribal history.
Frenchman, 42, said she studied her native language under Whitewater
for five years before he died at age 90 recently. The language
apprentice said she never learned Ho-Chunk from her grandparents, who
Now, she herself is learning the language as she tries to save it
from extinction. "There's an old legend that says if the language
ever dies, the world will cease to exist," she said. "I don't want it
Marie Sanchez, a Northern Cheyenne who teaches the tribal language to
elementary school students, characterized as severe the language loss
among youngsters in her northeastern Montana reservation. "Our
youngest fluent speaker is 30," said Sanchez, 67.
To counter the downward trend, tribal members plan to expand an
immersion program for mothers and infants, Sanchez said. "We want to
get them back into learning the language and traditions before
childbirth," she said of expectant mothers.
Seeing so many youths no longer speak Cheyenne saddens Sanchez, but
at the same time, "it makes me want to try harder."
Delphine Saraficio, who teaches O'odham to children and adults in San
Xavier, said she sometimes feels discouraged to see her native
But then she hears new students such as Preston painstakingly emit
the soft, lilting sounds of O'odham in class. It is the affirmation
she needs to keep working to save her mother tongue.
● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or
lmedrano at azstarnet.com.
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