A Link To Creation
andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Jan 14 22:43:52 UTC 2008
Language of the elders
Preserving the sounds and identity of their American Indian culture
By Flynn Espe
The East Oregonian
As in any typical high school classroom, the level of engagement
varied from student to student Tuesday morning in the Umatilla
language class at Nixyáawii Community School.
In reviewing Umatilla vocabulary for articles of clothing, teacher
Tawtaliksh (English name Fred Hill, Sr.) told several amusing stories
behind the meaning of the words, being careful to clarify the
language's precise sounds. With the slightest of change in vowel
pronunciation, he demonstrated, the word for sleep would turn into
the word for drink.
While some peers chatted away in various corners of the room, senior
Randy Robinson, now in his third year of learning the language, sat
front and center taking down notes.
"I kind of try to focus on myself," Robinson said. "I'm starting to
understand more of what Fred says when he starts speaking."
In another classroom on campus, a different group of students
reviewed the answers to a test on the Walla Walla tribal language,
while a third classroom of students spent the morning studying
pronouns of the Nez Perce language. Sitting in on the latter session,
two elder Nez Perce speakers listened to make sure their apprentice
teacher taught the proper annunciation.
A new effort
While the three American Indian dialects once flourished across the
region as a backbone of native culture, very few fluent speakers -
who learned the languages orally, often through grandparents - remain
Beginning in 1996, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian
Reservation adopted an ambitious language program to preserve the old
tongues from becoming extinct.
Each weekday, a small selection of tribal elders representing all
three languages gathers informally to socialize and help one another
re-extract the old words and phrases from their memories. While the
group started with about nine elders, two have since died.
With the help of descriptive linguist Noel Rude, Ph.D., the tribes
have begun to amass a collection of recorded and phonetically written
texts of the native dialects, transcribed interviews with the present
tribal elders. From those, Rude has continued to expand the
dictionaries and figure out the language grammars.
While that work continues, the tribes have begun to build curriculum
to teach the languages, now foreign, to the newest generation.
At Nixyáawii, often depending on their blood lineage, students choose
to study either Umatilla, Walla Walla or what the tribes refer to as
Cayuse-Nez Perce, a slightly modified version of the Nez Perce
language the Cayuse people began to speak after being nearly wiped
out from war and disease in the 1800s. As the true Cayuse language no
longer exists, tribal members attached the name to the Nez Perce as
an identifier of the people who lived on through intermarriage.
Reclaiming what was lost
"When the Catholic priests came and they started the boarding
schools, they punished the young people for speaking Indian. And also
the United States government schools punished the youngsters
severely," said elder Shaw' shwíinan' may (Kathleen Gordon), who
helps pass on the Cayuse-Nez Perce language. "It was beaten out of us
really. So our grandmas and our parents feared for us being punished
For many, such painful history contributed to long-lasting feelings
"There was a lot of resistance at one time to have the language
written down," said Kakiinash (Thomas MorningOwl), original language
program director, explaining the old sentiment of some elders. " 'Why
do you write down the language? The white man has stolen our
identity. They've stolen our land.' "
It's a viewpoint MorningOwl said has begun to fall by the wayside.
"If I have the language, as I do, and I don't do anything to pass it
on to my kids and leave a legacy of the written word behind, and I go
to my grave ... I steal it from everybody," MorningOwl said.
As the program now operates, a handful of elders from each language
work independently to teach one or two adult apprentices, who in turn
pass on the language to the high school students. Students study the
languages twice a week.
The tribes also work the language into their HeadStart program and
teach a group of students weekly at Pendleton's Washington Elementary.
It is by no means an easy task. Aside from the different grammar and
vocabulary, each of the three native tongues incorporates phonetic
sounds not used in the English language.
"English is kind of the upper limit for vowel sounds, huge numbers of
vowels," Rude said. "And these (American Indian) languages are really
rich in consonant sounds."
Those sounds can incorporate everything from subtle pops at the front
of the mouth to guttural throat pronunciations.
"One of the things that always comes to my mind is, 'Are the people
here really ready to start pronouncing the words how they're supposed
to be pronounced?' " program supervisor Tîsyawak (Mildred Quaempts)
said. "If they really want this language to go out, they have to be
patient, and they have to be willing and committed."
A link to creation
For Hill, it also is a matter of immersing the young people in
storytelling, an important teaching vehicle by which past generations
learned to imitate the sounds of language not easily captured on paper.
"There were life lessons, and as the stories were told you learned to
become a listener. And one of those ways you indicated you were
listening was by begetting sounds as you listened," he said,
demonstrating a few vowel hums. "There are sounds that are evoked by
the spirit of the story."
And many tribal members believe those sounds have roots as deep as
creation, a message Gordon imparts to all of her students.
"These were sacred gifts to us from our creator that we were to speak
for a lifetime. But they were taken from us and we need to revive
them, because it is our true identity," Gordon said. "Like every bird
has a song, their own unique song and sound - the dogs, the cats -
everything has their own sound and this is our unique sound the
creator gave to us."
In an increasingly English-saturated world, local languages like the
Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce, may never again exist in the
same pure capacity as the past.
"It's very hard to maintain a minority language in the world anywhere
today," Rude said. "That's what we're trying to do here."
Nevertheless, teachers at Nixyáawii may find encouragement from
students like Robinson, who are making more noticeable efforts to
"I'm hoping to come back next year as an apprentice," he said. "I
would like to keep up with the language, so I don't lose it over time."
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