Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 19, 2001 - Issue 36



Breathing Sacred Language


 by Brenda Norrell Indian Country Today Staff

TUCSON, Ariz. - When Hopi surveyed their young people to determine how many were speaking the Hopi language, statistics for youths 19 and younger were staggering.

"We found out teen-agers on down couldn't speak Hopi at all," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi cultural preservation director.

There also was good news. About one-half of the people are conversational in the language, with most Hopi older than 60 using Hopi in conversation.

"At least we have our language."

"Language is the heart of culture. If you lose it, you lose your culture," he told the 10th annual Keepers of the Treasures conference.

While any language can be preserved on paper, Kuwanwisiwma said the ultimate test is preserving it within the context of culture.

Kuwanwisiwma grew up in the 1950s, speaking Hopi as his first language. Boarding schools, however, were intent on seeing the Hopi language vanish, directly and indirectly.

On Sunday mornings in boarding schools "many students opted to go to church rather than work. That was subtle acculturation," he said.

For the past three years, Marvin Lalo and Anita Poleahla at the Hopilavayi (Hopi language) Project designed brightly colored children's materials and developed language learning games. The Hopi-English Dictionary has been published in an effort to keep the language alive in the 12 villages in northern Arizona.

Nina Gale Thrower said her tribe, Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, has only one Native speaker remaining.

"Our tribe didn't speak our Creek Muscogee, even in the 1800s," she said. Tribal members along the Alabama-Florida border served as guides and interpreters during the past two centuries.

"We just have a small language program, only about 15 people come," she said of the 2,200-member tribe.

"If language is in your heart you can find it," says Michael Lincoln, Round Valley tribal member from northern California.

Concerned with the vanishing language of his father's people, the Koyomkawim majdy of northern California, Lincoln video-taped the four-day conference.

"Everything here I can take home and share with the people, to get them serious about preserving their language."

Beverly Smith, Maricopa in Arizona, said the tribe's language program has grown steadily for 10 years.

"You can hear it in their songs in their school programs," said Smith, from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Surrounded by Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe, she says, "We are so close to the boundaries of all these big cities, we are influenced by these outside problems."

Smith said radio and television programs in Native languages would help preserve the Pima and Maricopa languages. "We have hopes of this in the future."

Roxie Andrews, Maricopa, said the language has always been an oral language, and only recently were efforts initiated to write down the words.

Urging fluent speakers to speak in their Native languages to children when they are young, Andrews said experiences in boarding school challenged her ability to speak Maricopa.

"I can't rattle it off the way I want to. I have to have refreshers."

"Language is our survival," says Danny Lopez, Tohono O'odham. He said people have to speak, live and dream in their language. Then, it will bind them together.

"Language is in my heart, in my soul."

Teaching Native languages can't be just an 8-to-5 job requiring an expensive tribal vehicle. It simply requires living in the villages and speaking the language, he says.

"The more English we use, the more it grasps us."

When he drops by another elder's home, and they greet him in English, Lopez always wants to say, "Why don't you speak O'odham?

"We have to speak our Native language, we have to use it, even when we talk to ourselves."

When he gets up in the morning, he says in O'odham, "Come on Danny, you can do it."

Maybe, he says, a person even has to dream in their Native language.

"Our people say our songs come to us in our sleep."

Brenda Norrell reports from the Southwest. She can be reached at (520) 490-8558 or by e-mail

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