Arizona: 11th-hour effort to save a Native tongue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jul 28 18:30:00 UTC 2008

11th-hour effort to save a Native tongue: As ranks of elders thin,
kids are tribes' last hope

Dennis Wagner - Jul. 27, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

"Nyims thava hmado we'e," they chant, meaning "Boys greet the morning
sun." And then for girls: "Nyima thava masi:yo we'e."

Jorigine Bender, the teacher, urges them to repeat the dawn greeting
with raised hands. "Everybody, turn toward your brother, the sun."
The youths, Hualapai and Yavapai, recite the phrases in
self-conscious, uncertain unison. The language is Pai, passed down to
them through generations but unintelligible to the children.

In an America dominated by computers, TV and video games, a decreasing
number of Native Americans, especially younger ones, can speak or
understand their Native tongues.

The eroding fluency and the potential extinction of indigenous
languages have prompted leaders of many tribes to develop immersion
courses, such as this summer camp in the pine forest southeast of

Loretta Jackson-Kelly, historic preservation officer for the Hualapai
Tribe, says there is hope that Pai will survive but only if elders
pass on their knowledge and children are willing to absorb it.

"A lot of people don't realize the implications," she adds. "Language
loss means you lose your identity."

Silenced tongues

There is no debate that Native idioms are becoming silent, one by one.
There are only differences about how many languages will die and how

According to the Indigenous Language Institute, only 20 of the 175
surviving American Indian dialects are expected to survive through
2050. Cultural Survival, an online advocacy group for indigenous
bands, says 50 of the remaining Native languages face imminent
extinction because they have five or fewer speakers, all over age 70.

"It's clear that the languages are disappearing," said Leanne Hinton,
professor emeritus in the linguistics department at the University of
California-Berkeley, who spent years working with Pai-speaking tribes.
"It's also clear that, over the last 10 or 20 years, there's a very
strong effort to keep them alive or regain them."

Lucille Watahomigie, a Pai linguist and member of the Hualapai Tribe,
says the erosion is largely attributable to historic U.S. policies:
Through most of the 20th century, the government sought to quash
indigenous speech, based on a notion that tribal language prevented
assimilation into mainstream society. Its methods included corporal
discipline for Indian students.

"It was like brainwashing because when they were sent to Indian
boarding schools, they were taught the language was wrong,"
Watahomigie says. "It was that whole process of civilizing."

After leaving government schools, many Indians refused to speak their
Native languages at home in hopes that their children would compete
better in a world dominated by English.

Watahomigie recalls her own experience as a first-grade teacher in the
1970s. Some first-graders in her class could not understand the
lessons in English, but she was ordered not to help them in Hualapai,
one of the Pai dialects. "I knew these kids were as smart as the
others, but I couldn't get them reading."

Watahomigie rebelled and persuaded the school to let her teach a
bilingual class. By 1975, she had obtained a grant and was helping put
Pai in writing for the first time.

By 1990, Congress had adopted measures encouraging bilingual education
in Native tongues. But decades of U.S. policies and the influence of
pop culture had launched a seemingly irreversible trend. Tribal
members who fail to learn their language at home seldom become fluent,
experts say, and are unable to pass it on to children.

Last year, Congress passed the Native American Languages Preservation
Act to provide funding for immersion courses. Jackson-Kelly, the
Hualapai historic preservation officer, said she is relying on tribal
contributions and volunteers for the summer camp.

Today, an estimated 40 percent of the 2,100 Hualapai tribal members
speak the ancient language, but few of those tribal members are under

The language decline is often more pronounced among smaller tribes
living near cities, such as the 159-member Yavapai-Prescott Indian
Tribe. The more the tribe intermingles with a large, urban,
English-speaking world, the faster its indigenous language declines.

"We're struggling to preserve the language," Watahomigie says. "A lot
of the kids say, 'If nobody's speaking it, how can we learn it?' "

Youthful ambivalence

About 80 youngsters are camped in tents for the program at Hualapai
Mountain Park.

They rise at 5 a.m. for a hike, followed by language sessions. One
"master" uses pantomime to teach a Native game similar to street
hockey, then asks kids to describe the actions in Pai terms. Others
teach how to make arrows, gourd rattles and a drink from sumac

Most kids embrace the lessons, though a few seem uninterested.

"I want to learn the language," says Rivers Wilder, 14, of Peach
Springs on the Hualapai Reservation, north of the park. "My grandma
and my mom speak Hualapai. But it's dying out. Most young people don't
know how to speak it and don't want to learn. They'd rather play

Johnathan Siyuja, 10, of Peach Springs, holds up a handmade rattle.
"If we play a gourd, it has a spirit in it," he says. "And if we break
it, we have to bury it. It's alive. You've got to take care of it and
all that stuff."

Ericson "Cody" Pertevich, 10, also of Peach Springs, shrugs. "I just
came here for the fun. I don't really care too much. But sometimes I
care because it's like the tribe is going out."

Idella Keluche, half Hualapai and half Havasupai, watches a 9-year-old
play with a bow and arrow.

"That's my grandson, my daughter's son," she says. "I'm trying to
teach him the traditional ways."

Brian Fernando of Prescott says he enjoys crafts but offers a little
boy's perspective on language lessons: "Booooring."

Cultural identity

Because language frames the way a person looks upon the world,
Watahomigie says, its demise also threatens a tribe's values,
traditions and religion.

That reality is magnified by the dominance of pop culture among kids.

Watahomigie surveys the collection of children in T-shirts bearing
music emblems of Dr. Dre and Motorhead and notes a video warfare game
known as Call of Duty.

"A lot of these kids here, they don't even think they're Indians.
They're like everyone else," she says. "We have a lot of gangs, a lot
of drug abuse right now. Much of that is because children don't have a
good self-concept. It's important for them to be proud of who they
are, to respect themselves, to understand that they are a unique
people but also part of a whole."

At a picnic table, Bender teaches youngsters to count in Pai. To the
beat of a gourd, they sing, laughing and tongue-tied, shouting faster
and faster to the melody of a nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians.

Nearby, two girls share an iPod. They appear to be ignoring their
pottery instructor, but it turns out that the music in their ears
comes from a traditional Hualapai singer.

Watahomigie says that there is hope that modern technology can help
save the ancient idiom but adds that the effort requires dedication.

"We have visions that there will still be the language a century from
now. We have that truth," she says. "But, being realistic, if things
keep going the way they are, we won't have any speakers."

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