Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
July 29, 2000 - Issue 15

Indian Languages Near Extinction
by Mark Shaffer The Arizona Republic

There are only a dozen speakers of the language left - and only one person under 18 learning it - but Lorraine Sanchez isn't about to give up on the local dialect of Yavapai, once the dominant language of the Verde Valley.

Sanchez leans forward in her wheelchair, listening intently, as the weekly Yavapai language class of the Camp Verde Yavapai-Apache Nation begins. The subject this night, in a language no child has spoken in the home since Harry Truman was president, is the Yavapai words for the trees of the valley. Sanchez reflects back to the long-ago words of her parents and grandparents.

Ahnahla - mesquite, she says, as 14 other mainly elderly people write what they hear phonetically. Ah dtas sah - sycamore. She repeats the word forcefully three times for a woman who has trouble pronouncing the 'dt' sound. Ah yohh - willow, she intones.

After class, Sanchez acknowledged the hardships of trying to save a dying language, one of several Native American dialects in the state on the verge of extinction. She had volunteered to be an apprentice to the young. Only two local teenagers had been willing to learn. One dropped out after a few weeks. The one who remained wasn't even Yavapai.

English dominates
That situation is hardly unusual in a society increasingly dominated by English and Spanish where, short of an influx of money and language immersion for young tribal members, only about 20 of the 155 Native American languages in the United States are expected to survive this century.

Linguists say the situation is grim in Arizona.


  • Of the state's 21 federally recognized tribes, nearly half have 50 or fewer tribal members who can speak their native language. The number of tribal councils conducting meetings in English has increased dramatically in recent years.

  • Even isolated, growing tribes such as the Navajos, who make up nearly half of the Native American language speakers in this country, face a language crisis. Bilingual educators on the nation's largest reservation say the number of fluent speakers of the language is half what it was a decade ago. Meanwhile, the number of Navajo children speaking only English nearly tripled to almost 30 percent from 1980 to 1990, and educators say that trend has accelerated during the past decade.

  • Although an anti-bilingual education measure being pushed for the Nov. ballot has targeted Spanish speakers, Native American educators say that if such a law passes, it could end efforts to instruct tribal languages on the reservations.

  • Despite congressional measures in the early 1990s that pay lip service to preserving Native American languages, funding has been limited and the competition for the language-instruction dollar has been intense.

The only hope for the trend to be reversed is youngsters in preschool programs being immersed in the tribal languages by elders who speak the ancient tongues, said Elizabeth Brandt, an Arizona State University anthropologist who has worked extensively with the Apache tribes.

"It's going to take an extraordinary grass-roots effort now to turn this around," Brandt said, adding that tribes need to think seriously about adopting the Hawaiian model of required immersion programs for young people to learn the language and culture. Many tribes have been in denial, Brandt said, hiding behind a false sense of security based on such reports as the U.S. Census Bureau 1990 Native American study. The study, among other things, reported that there are nearly 150,000 Navajo speakers in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, and almost 13,000 Apache speakers and 12,000 speakers of the Tohono O'odham/Pima languages in Arizona.

On the Yavapai Apache Nation Reservation near Middle Verde a group of about a dozen tribe members gather to learn the Yavapai language from elders.

Number question
Those numbers were arrived at by asking Native American census participants only if the person speaks a language at home other than English.

The truth of the matter, Brandt and other experts in the field say, is that there's probably only about one-quarter to one-third that number who actually are fluent speakers. And an overwhelming number of them are old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits now.

"I had a colleague who did a language survey in the Gilson Wash district of the San Carlos Apache Reservation," Brandt said. "He didn't find one speaker of the language under age 18."

That tracks with what Irene Silentman, a bilingual specialist for the Navajo Department of Education in Window Rock, has observed.

'Shocking decline'
"There has been a shocking decline in people speaking our language, especially in the Arizona part of the reservation," Silentman said. "On top of that, we only have one school district in the entire Navajo Nation with immersion and that only involves about 200 students. I wonder how effective even that is, though, because I've walked through the aisles of those classes and never heard any of the students interact in Navajo."

The current malaise in Native American languages is the result of long-standing federal policy to eliminate them, something that has worked all too well, said Jon Reyhner, a bilingual specialist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

After the U.S. government herded Indians onto reservations in the 1800s, the focus turned to eliminating the native languages. One of the favored tactics in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, even up to the 1950s, was washing out students' mouths with soap if they spoke their languages at the schools.

That left deep psychological scars among generations of people that carry over to this day. Coupled with the accessibility of mass communications to even the most remote corners of all reservations, the indigenous languages have declined.

"If nothing has happened with the children on their native language front by the time they are 10, you've lost the battle because peer pressure kicks in then and that's where English becomes all pervasive," Reyhner said.

Congress finally officially recognized the dire straits of the non-English languages and passed the Native American Languages Acts of 1990 and 1992, which articulate a government policy of protecting indigenous languages and authorize grants for that purpose. The first grants of $1 million to tribes were given in late 1994, but the lack of funding has made the grants highly competitive.

But problems have remained for many tribes even after receiving grant money.

The Cocopah Tribe near Yuma, which has fewer than 100 speakers, obtained a $300,000 language-renewal grant for a two-year program. But the tribe lost the grant in the midst of setting up the program because of a dispute with the program administrator over the person's 401(k) account, said Kermit Palmer, a tribal spokesman.

Some optimism
Not everything is gloomy, though, on the language front, according to Barnaby Lewis, cultural director for the Gila River Indian Community.

He said casino profits have led to a limited revitalization of the Pima and O'odham languages in central and southern Arizona.

"There are 1,000 to 1,500 people on our reservation who still are fluent and another 3,000 at Tohono O'odham," Lewis said. "But I sense that the attitude toward learning the language has improved a lot in recent times, and that bodes well for the future."

But is it too late for many Arizona reservations?

The native language has all but disappeared on the Ak-Chin, Colorado River, Fort Mojave, Kaibab-Paiute and San Juan Southern Paiute reservations.

Only about 45 speakers of Yavapai remain on the three reservations where it is spoken: Prescott, Camp Verde and Fort McDowell.

"Indian languages are a dying species," said Katherine Marquez, cultural director for the Yavapai-Apache Nation, adding that the tribe has a last-gasp $200,000 grant application to reinvigorate its language. "But you know what? Hebrew came back from the dead, and we can, too."

Yavapai-Apache Nation

Gila River Indian Community

Cocopah Tribe

Southern Paiute



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