A race to rescue native tongues

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Sep 24 13:15:54 UTC 2007


  From the issue dated September 28, 2007 A Race to Rescue Native Tongues


Do you speak American? Ojibwa, Inupiaq, Navajo, or Tututni? These languages
once described everyday life in America, with words like *dibik-giizis*(moon),
*láá'íí* (one), and *tulxata* (water) as common as latte, Big Mac, and yes
are now. But along with other Native American tongues, they have faded even
more quickly than their tribes have. In 2000 only about 380,000 people in
the United States spoke an indigenous language at home, and about 1 percent
of people were of Native American descent, according to census figures. Of
the 300 or so native languages once spoken in North America, only about 150
are still spoken — and the majority of those have just a handful of mostly
elderly speakers.

For most Native American languages, colleges and universities are their last
great hope, if not their final resting place. People at a number of
institutions across the country — including Ilisagvik College, in rural
Alaska, and Slippery Rock University, in Pennsylvania — are working to
document the languages so they don't become a lost part of American history.
And where possible, they are trying to revitalize indigenous languages by
teaching them to undergraduates, training schoolteachers, and creating
language-learning materials. Their efforts have met with some success.
College-student enrollments in native-languages programs increased by about
25 percent between 1998 and 2002, according to the most recent data from the
Modern Language Association. And experts in the field say that growth has
continued, especially at tribal colleges.

The United States has 34 public tribal colleges and universities, primarily
on reservations. Although a few are federally chartered, most of the
colleges were started by tribes. Most have only a few hundred students, but
they have some of the largest Native American language programs, according
to the Modern Language Association. "Most of the tribes are working very
hard on training young people because in many of the tribes, the fluent
speakers are 80 or older," says A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, who is one of the
association's experts on Native American languages.

In states with sizable Native American populations, large public
institutions — like the University of Oklahoma, the University of
Minnesota-Twin Cities, and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks — also
offer native languages. And several institutions in the University of Hawaii
system have highly successful Hawaiian-language programs. Even so, only
several thousand students at most are studying Native American languages in
college. Take the work of Jaeci Hall, a graduate student studying the
linguistics of Native American languages at the University of Arizona, in
Tucson. She's documenting Tututni, the language of her ancestors, and trying
to reconstruct its grammatical structure, much of which has been lost over

To do so, Ms. Hall has to rely in part on the memory of two elderly men who
are the last living people who are near-fluent in Tututni. She talks most
often to Gilbert Towner, who was born on the Siletz Reservation in Oregon
but now lives on a reservation in Idaho. "What I'm trying to do is uncover
enough of the structure to take it back to him and say, 'Does this work?,'"
Ms. Hall says. "Hopefully that will jog those old memories." Mr. Towner, who
is in his 70s, learned Tututni as his first language, but it was beaten out
of him as a little boy when he attended an English-only school for Indians.
Then, as an adult, he decided to start speaking his native language again.
About seven years ago, he began teaching Tututni to Ms. Hall's father as a
personal project. Soon, Ms. Hall and 10 others also were working to learn
the language, in part through a language retreat with Mr. Towner each
summer. That experience convinced Ms. Hall to study anthropology as an
undergraduate at Linfield College, in McMinnville, Ore., and now to do
graduate work on the language.

For her, it's a way to connect to a heritage she wasn't in touch with as a
child. Ms. Hall is a member of the Lower Rogue River Indian tribe in
southwest Oregon, but she was raised just outside Eugene, not on a
reservation. She believes that learning Tututni also provides a map to a
world beyond English. "It opened my mind to the bigger picture of other
cultures and concepts that I don't think English expresses well," says Ms.
Hall. For many linguists, documenting Indian languages is as much about
preserving cultures as it is about saving words.

Ann Filemyr, dean of the center for arts and cultural studies at the
Institute of American Indian Arts, says that's especially true for
professors at tribal colleges.

"The tribal colleges are a social and cultural movement as well as academic
institutions," Ms. Filemyr says. "And language preservation is about
culture, and it's also about sovereignty."

The institute, a tribal college in Santa Fe, N.M., educates many members of
the Navajo tribe who grew up speaking the language, she says. But often they
have not had formal language instruction, which the college provides.

Navajo, with about 170,000 speakers, is the most widely spoken native
language in the United States. Many tribes use Navajo not only in the home
and in ceremonies, but for official tribal business. For them, conducting
business in English would be like the U.S. government conducting business in

The Inupiaq people of Barrow, Alaska, are trying to maintain their
sovereignty in part through language programs in the local schools and at
Ilisagvik College. The institution, which recently received federal
designation as a tribal college, has taught Inupiaq for more than a decade.
At the 300-student college, several dozen students typically study Inupiaq
during the year, and a handful participated in a two-week immersion
institute this summer.

Beverly Patkotak Grinage, president of Ilisagvik, says the college
encourages students to study Inupiaq because, although it is still used in
tribal meetings, the language is highly endangered.

"Our mission is to promote our Inupiaq language and culture, as well as
preparing students for the work force," she says.

Ms. Patkotak Grinage herself was prohibited from speaking Inupiaq at school
until the seventh grade, when the state relaxed rules about teaching the

"That was really empowering," she says. "That our language was viewed as
equal to the English language."
http://chronicle.com Section: Diversity in Academe Volume 54, Issue 5, Page


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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