A Link To Creation

Andre Cramblit 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  
and beaten."

For many, such painful history contributed to long-lasting feelings  
of suspicion.

"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.

Language barriers

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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