Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Native Americans Attempt To Save Tribal Languages For the Next Generation


THERE are 500 ways to say love in the native American language Odawa, but Kenny Pheasant is the only one in his town who can say them all. Not even the elders in his community speak the language fluently. Because language can live only in the people who speak it, Odawa, like many other native tongues in the United States, is endangered.

Some tribes are reintroducing Indian languages to the next generation, recognizing that language is a powerful part of a culture's religion, history, and ritual. But many teachers find that few speakers are left and time is short, Mr. Pheasant says.

About these ads

In North America, 80 percent of native languages are no longer taught to children, estimates University of Alaska linguist Michael Krauss. Tribes that have 100 speakers as well as those that have only two speakers face language extinction; once the elders are gone so is the language, says Mary Bates, director of the Native California Network in Bolinas, Calif.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is slowly retrieving its language. The group's small reservation lies among blooming cherry orchards between the tribally operated Leelanau Sands Casino and the local yacht club in Peshawbestown, Mich. Pheasant, an Ottawa Indian, has become the tribe's sole language teacher. He says he sometimes will spend eight hours conjugating a single verb. First he recalls the verb's tenses, then he translates their sounds into spellings, and finally he creates verb charts as a visual aid. He says he believes his work is essential and that survival of a language is survival of a people.

Even the Grand Traverse Band elders who live together in a large white compound on the reservation say they don't know Odawa well enough to teach it. Elder Esther Koon says she is grateful for Pheasant's knowledge of the language because she just doesn't know all the grammar. Pheasant says that Odawa, which is 60 percent verbs, has an overwhelming number of rules but also offers great opportunity to find just the right word.

Odawa is not a written language. Pheasant says his ancestors communicated through art and speech, not writing. So there are no books in the library to help him or the children.

WHEN Pheasant moved to Michigan from Canada, where he learned the language as a child, a teacher at the local college asked him to teach a class in Odawa. So many people demanded to be taught that Pheasant had to quit his job at a construction company. He now teaches 150 students a week and is working on a computer program to instruct those who can't come to his classes. His students range from preschoolers to older adults.

Shirley Brown, a Chickasaw Indian and director of the Native American Language Institute in Harrah, Okla., says that only in the last 20 years have Indians tried to get their languages back. The desire of native Americans to succeed in a non-Indian culture and the suppression of native languages for centuries in schools have contributed to the destruction of those languages, she says.

"The problem is, we have to survive in two environments," Ms. Brown says. "We lose some of one or the other." This issue is one of the things Indians of all tribes agree on, she says: "When you talk about the language, you talk about the heart of something."

About these ads

The Native California Network started its campaign to save languages last summer after a revival of another ritual that involved words - naming ceremonies. The network held a language conference that was attended by tribal scholars from all over the US, who shared news on local efforts to preserve language. "There were tears in the audience," says Ms. Bates.

One result of the conference was the establishment of a Master Apprentice Language Learning program by the network. The program, which starts this month in Berkeley, Calif., matches six elders with six people who want to learn their language. Karuk, Hupa, Yurok, Wintu, Yowlumni, and Mojave are the native Californian languages represented. The master in Wintu is the last medicine woman of her tribe and one of the last two speakers of the language. Her apprentice is her granddaughter. The teams will immers e themselves in a 16-week, 20-hour-a-week program.

The network also founded the group Advocates for Indigenous Language Survival at the conference. The group's first task is to assess the state of native Californian languages. They say this is an important first step because most tribe members themselves do not know how many speakers of their language are left and to what extent the original language survived.

So far, most of these efforts have been paid for by private contributions. But many tribes are now awaiting government funding for language preservation.

The Native American Languages Act of 1992 established a grant program to ensure survival of Indian languages. David Banks, a resource planner with the National Park Service who also administers federal funds, says that although no money has been given out yet, his organization is enthusiastic about helping language programs in the future. "We don't just deal with the preservation of [native American] buildings, but with foods, dances, and languages." All parts of a culture are represented, he says.

To Kenny Pheasant, the only way a language can survive is within a family. It has to be spoken and heard constantly by children, he says. For him, children are not only the fastest learners but also the only hope for a language to survive.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.