Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
September 9, 2000 - Issue 18

Comanche Language Kept Alive
by Morgan Lee Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

Geneva Navarro of Santa Fe never taught her children more than a few words of the Comanche language. Now the 74-year-old retired nurse is making up for that by teaching the smooth monotone of Comanche to her grandchildren and more than 35 other students in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

The younger the student, the better, according to Navarro, who counts herself as the only fully fluent Comanche in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

"My grandchildren can learn better now than my children," she said. "Hopefully it's not too late."

Navarro started teaching Comanche in earnest 10 years ago when she learned that the her native tongue was in danger of extinction.

The famously restless Comanche once roamed from the Rio Grande in New Mexico across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and beyond. Today the heart of Comanche country is in eastern Oklahoma. New Mexico is a distant satellite with only 150 Comanches reported in the 1990 U.S. Census.

Even in Oklahoma, however, less than 2 percent of 10,000 enrolled Comanches speak Comanche fluently, according to Barbara Goodin of Lawton, Okla., who helped start the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee in 1993.

The nonprofit group publishes a monthly newsletter and dictionary. It also organized one-on-one, at-home lessons between elders and students through a grant from the Santa Fe-based Lannan Foundation. The program has provided students as young as 9 with 400 hours of tutoring.

Goodin, who speaks only broken Comanche, said that time is running out to preserve the Comanche language, noting that most of the fluent speakers of Comanche are more than 60 years old.

Some elders have resisted the urge to preserve Comanche in writing, she said.

"We have some people within our tribe that feel like our language should not be preserved, that when our speakers are gone the language should be gone," Goodin said. "Then we have people like Geneva Navarro. She has a passion for carrying on the language."

Comanche tradition dictates that the eldest granddaughter live with and care for her grandparents in their twilight years.

A dutiful granddaughter, Navarro acted 65 years ago as an English interpreter for her aging grandparents on trips to the grocery store and offices of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which controlled the family's land allotment in Oklahoma. The elderly couple only spoke Comanche and Navarro quickly grew fluent.

Navarro's mother and other Comanches, meanwhile, were discouraged from speaking their native language at federal boarding schools. Catholic schools teaching in the Comanche community later would enforce English-only lessons with corporal punishment. Navarro became a Catholic at 18 but never fully forsook the Peyote religion of her ancestors.

Intermarriage also decimated the Comanche language, said Navarro, citing her own example. Navarro's husband, now deceased, was part Apache and part Mexican.

"We only spoke English at home, although I taught the children simple words," Navarro said. "I would scold them in Comanche."

After a 40-year career in the Public Health Service, Navarro has dedicated herself to teaching Comanche and now is winning applause from other Native American-language teachers. She has been invited to offer advice by pueblos in New Mexico, where controversy also brews over codifying the native Tewa and Tiwa languages. The Comanche and New Mexico-based tribes are turning to videotapes to record the true spoken word.

Navarro is scheduled to win honors Sept. 16 from the Institute for the Preservation of the Original Languages of the Americas, a Santa Fe nonprofit group dedicated to language revitalization.

She leads a hyperactive retirement, volunteering as a docent at the state Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and on the children's Pow Wow committee at the private Wheelright Museum of the American Indian.

Volunteering her time as a language teacher, Navarro accepts only a stipend for her trips to teach in Albuquerque. Recent eye surgery has put her back behind the wheel of a vehicle she drove to Oklahoma recently to help expand the Comanche dictionary and a teaching curriculum with the Comanche Language Committee.

"We're doing a pretty good job," Navarro explained from her home on Camino del Bosque, where the kitchen clock is calibrated in Comanche words. "We're putting it in writing and that's helping."

The unusual Comanche language Shoshone is its closest cousin presents its own resistance to preservation.

Navarro's grandson Jackie Solis, 15, home on summer break from high school, said his Comanche lessons are more difficult that Spanish classes at public school.

Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma

Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee



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