Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


april 21, 2001 - Issue 34



Lemhi Shoshoni Creates Shoshoni Dictionary

The Shoshoni show love by gestures and acts, says Drusilla Gould, a Lemhi Shoshoni from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation near Pocatello.

The Shoshoni are more apt to say, "I care for you." Gould is the Noah Webster of the Shoshoni people. A reluctant Noah Webster at that.

Shoshoni was considered almost dead when Gould became co-director of the Shoshoni Language Project at Idaho State University in Pocatello in 1999. Her mission: to create a Shoshoni dictionary. It was a role she embraced almost with fear and loathing as Shoshoni was considered an oral, not a written language. The only time it had been written, to her knowledge, was via some markings found on stones in southern Alberta, Canada.

But, she said, her dead grandmother, who never spoke a word of English, gave her the go-ahead in a dream to make her own markings.

"Your language is what is going to support you, protect you, bring you to a higher level," Gould's grandmother told her.

"My grandmother said, 'You're not human until you learn your language,' " recalled Gould.

Shoshoni is a specific language, Gould said. Someone speaking Shoshoni would not, for instance, tell you to walk. Rather, they would how to walk -- whether to glide or take tiny steps -- and just how fast you should do it.

There are no words for "hello" or "goodbye" in Shoshone.

"To use 'goodbye' would mean forever. We always say 'I will see you later' or 'I expect to see you later,"' Gould said.

There are no Shoshoni swear words, either.

"We are taught to be careful of what we say. We can heal people with words. We can make people ill with words. We take criticism as a constructive, not a negative," said Gould, who did not speak a word of English herself until she started school.

It is difficult to do a dictionary, Gould said, because she cannot always ascribe an English word to a Shoshoni word. When she uses a word that has been long buried, she says a prayer and makes an offering to bring it back to life from the spirit world.

Today many Shoshoni youngsters speak a slang Shoshoni, a kind of pidgin Shoshoni of two-syllable made-up words that Gould calls "baby talk." This just helps convince her that she is on the right track in documenting her people's language.

"Our people can express themselves better in our language because it is the language we're blessed with," she says.

Joan Davies, of the College of Southern Idaho, said she gets excited listening to Gould tell about her efforts to document the Shoshoni language because "I feel I've walked the path with wonderful Shoshoni people and watched them struggle with being purist in oral tradition. There is a value in the oral tradition but with the direction society is progressing, we lose something if we can't translate it."

 Shoshoni Language Newsletter




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