Tribes strive to save native tongues

In the Pacific Northwest, some 40 indigenous languages are at risk of disappearing within a decade.

Aaron Clark
PRESERVATION: Radine ‘Deanie’ Johnson and her grandmother, Gladys Thompson, work to record and teach the Wasco tribe’s Kiksht language.

Grass-roots efforts to preserve and teach youngsters native languages are intensifying around the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia as about 40 indigenous tongues are in danger of disappearing within the next decade.

Native leaders are compiling dictionaries, drafting lesson plans, and scrambling to save what scraps of language they can before the last of the fluent elders dies. In the case of Kiksht, a language spoken for centuries along Oregon's Columbia River, there are two remaining speakers and neither can remember the words for "yawn" or "brown."

"It's funny, but it's stuff we still need to know," says Radine "Deanie" Johnson, a former forklift operator spearheading efforts to preserve her grandmother's language on this hardscrabble reservation in central Oregon. "I think if we didn't have our languages, our customs, traditions, that we wouldn't be considered native Americans."

Many of these languages such as Skagit, Ichishkiin, or northern Haida still have dozens of fluent native speakers, but nearly all of them are middle-aged or older.

Attempts to record these languages vary, but most are underfunded. A few have the services of a dedicated linguist; others are more ad hoc. So-called "revitalization" programs may be successful at passing on a few traditional phrases, stories, or dances. But most attempts to bring a language back into common usage after the majority of speakers have reached middle age have failed.

Hebrew, taught by Zionist settlers in Palestine and which later became the official language of Israel, is the most notable exception. Today there are about 7 million speakers. New Zealand has spent millions of dollars promoting Maori, teaching it in schools, and in 1987 recognizing it as the third official language. But the number of fluent Maori speakers there has dropped by 10,000 – about 17 percent – over the past 10 years and some 80 percent of them are more than 35 years old.

"A language dies when you don't have children picking it up in the home," says Scott DeLancey, a University of Oregon linguist.

Here in America's Northwest, there are signs policymakers are beginning to take some notice. Last May, the Oregon State Legislature passed a resolution honoring Ms. Johnson's grandmother, Gladys Thompson, for her efforts to teach Kiksht and "her dedication to the preservation of Indian ways."

In 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded $5 million to support efforts to digitally record more than 60 endangered languages around the world. Included was $263,000 to document stories and conversations in Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, spoken along the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska and islands off British Columbia.

"At least it's a validation of the implications of what is to be lost," says Patricia Shaw, director of the First Nations Languages Program in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Tribe members here in Warm Springs say preserving what they can of Kiksht, also known as Wasco, is critical to maintaining their distinctiveness as a people.

"Lose the language, lose distinct identity," says George Aguilar, the tribe's unofficial historian, who is half-Filipino but was raised by his Kiksht grandmother. "The Kiksht are in a time warp right now because we lost contact with the old way of life. We have lost our customs. The canoe songs are no longer known. The farewell songs are no longer known."

In 2005, Johnson shared a $100,000 federal grant with the local museum. She used a portion of the money to buy a video camera, an Apple laptop, and digital recording equipment to help document Kiksht. A few months ago, Johnson found a Mr. Potato Head doll at a garage sale and made a video to teach children Kiksht words for body parts. "Their jaws dropped when they saw it," says Johnson.

Johnson and her grandmother work in a dilapidated white trailer, a couple hundred feet away from brick buildings where hundreds of native American children were once herded into boarding schools and forced to learn English. The federal government routinely rounded up native children – kidnapped, tribe members say – and held them separate from their parents in boarding schools well into the 20th century in a systematic effort to eradicate Indian language and culture. In 2000, an official of the Bureau of Indian Affairs formally apologized for the "destructive efforts" of his agency, including the forced assimilation of native children in boarding schools.

" 'Chau chau asabal,' that's how you would explain toast," says Johnson as she pages through one of about a dozen notebooks. Her grandmother rests in a corner, surrounded by microphones. Johnson laughs as she reads another phrase that came from Thompson, " 'K'aya enluxwan qidau,' which means, 'I don't think that way.' "

Of 45 languages spoken in Oregon before native American contact with Europeans, most are extinct. There are about 20 remaining speakers of Ichishkiin on the Warm Springs reservation.

On a recent morning Arlita Rhoan sat in the middle of a playroom, surrounded by slices of wooden watermelon, building blocks, and paper cutouts of snowflakes. As a teacher of Ichishkiin – part of the reservation's language immersion classes for preschoolers who also receive instruction in Kiksht and Paiute – she told stories and handed out drums. Her 3-year-olds sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "If You're Happy and You Know It" in Ichishkiin.

In 2003, Dawn Smith, principal of the local elementary school, barred Ms. Rhoan, Johnson, and other tribal instructors from teaching native languages in the school district because she said their curriculum failed to build on itself. "As far as I know they are still working on getting a comprehensive program together," says Ms. Smith.

Other educators have been more encouraging.

On the Siletz Dee-ni reservation along Oregon's Pacific coast, a local high school recently allowed the weekly Athabaskan classes to count toward students' foreign-language requirement. Only five people speak Athabaskan, one of the tribe's original languages.

"We aren't producing fluent speakers yet," says Bud Lane, one of the youngest speakers, who has worked 14 years in the local paper mill. But he's optimistic. He is compiling the language's most comprehensive dictionary of 12,000 words online.

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