'Lighting' to rescue of a tribal tongue

Haruo Aoki hardly looks like a man who's also known as "Lighting." He is a quiet, unassuming linguist and former Ful-bright scholar who specializes in eighth-century Japanese phonology. In his tweed jacket and horned-rim glasses, perched behind a desk piled high with papers and books, he look very much the Berkeley professor.

But to the Nez Perce Indians of Idaho, he is "Takasayohote" ("lightning"), the man who has spent most of his adult life helping save their language from extinction. Thanks largely to his dedication and concern, Nez Perce -- unlike many other native American languages which have been lost -- is being retrieved from its endangered species status.

Long ago -- before questionable treaties took their land and cavalry soldiers nearly drove them into Canada -- the Nez Perce were known for their interest in education. In the 1830s, they sent tribal leaders back east to St. Louis requesting books and teachers.

Ironically, this many have been the first step in the near-demise of the Nez Perce language. The missionaries who came, and the subsequent white-run Indian schools, discourages the young Nez Perces from speaking their native tongue.

"I guess there was the choice between preserving the old customs and getting assimilated into the majority culture," says professor Aoki. "For economic survival, the latter choice was forced upon them." Tribal elder Angus Wilson, one of just a handful who speak Nez Perce today, recalls that "it was forbidden" to speak the language. Transgressors sometimes were beaten.

As a young University of California graduate student 20 years ago, Dr. Aoki first went to Idaho at the request of the state's historical society. With a tape recorder and tentative introductions, he learned basic Nez Perce grammar and the language's difficult phonetics.

Over subsequent summers, Professor Aoki recorded and transcribed the personal recollections of older Nez Perces, who remembered the Indian wars and the influx of settlers and gold miners. He also began collecting "coyote stories," sophisticated animal legends that explain tribal history.

He lived in tepees, ate roast venison, and proved himself able to stay as long as any Nez Perce in the "wistitamo," or sweathouse.

"It's a sign of weakness to escape too soon from the heat of the sweathouse," he recalls. "But Japanese love hot baths, and I like them especially hot."

Over the years, he completed the first Nez Perce grammar book and other texts , and now is about half finished with an English-Nez Perce dictionary.

"We're really excited about it," says Lydia Angle, coordinator of the Nez Perce Tribal Resource Center in Lapwai, Idaho. With funds from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, the resource center last year started an educational program that includes the first high school classes in Nez Perce language and culture.

"We're hoping by the end of this year to have a corps of Nez Perce speakers who can also write it," she adds. "The greatest threat to the tribe is the loss of the language."

The threat is to a valuable heritage, part of 19th-century American history, but also to present-day Nez Perce Indians as well. They have been fighting an 1863 treaty in which part of the tribe ceded large amounts of valuable land to the United States government. Historians now regard this treaty as having been extracted under false premises. If the tribe is to be fairly compensated, it has to demonstrate continuity with its past position as a "nation."

"The tribe is one that has been fighting very much for treaty rights," explains Lydia Angle. "But it's difficult to maintain our identity as a sovereign nation without the language."

Thus, the Nez Perce are doubly grateful for the work that Haruo "Lightning" Aoki continues to do on their behalf.

"I don't think we could get anyone better," says Lottie Moody, a member of the Nez Perce committee of elders. "We think a lot of him up this way."

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