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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 11, 2001 - Issue 42


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Indians Race to Save Languages


 by Phil Magers


art Sequoyah's Dream by Bob Annesley

Many American Indian tribes are in a race against time to save their languages because young people are not learning their tradition and the elders who would be their teachers are quickly passing from the scene.

Language scholars estimate about half of the 300 or so native languages spoken before Columbus landed in the Americas are now extinct.

Most tribes have language preservation programs but in the past 10 years they have stepped up efforts to save the spoken words of their people because they know if they don't, that distinctive part of their culture could be lost, according to Indian leaders and experts.

"We lost two or three in the last two weeks that were fluent elders," says Hastings Shade, deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation at Tahlequah, Okla. "They knew a lot of our customs and ways. They say when you lose an elder, you lose a library of knowledge."

The Cherokees, which have one of the few written Indian languages created by their own people, also operate one the most active preservation programs. The written Cherokee language is based on the alphabet created by Sequoyah and adopted by the tribe in 1821.

An estimated 10,000 Cherokees are considered fluent speakers and another 20,000 can speak a few words, says Shade, but he warns that's only a small percentage of the 250,000 members. He says the tribe is taking measures to ensure that the language is passed on.

"This coming school year we will do a full immersion program with 3-year-olds at the Head Start," he says. "It will be kind of a volunteer basis. If the parents want it, they can send their children to this class. As the child goes to school, the parents also have to take Cherokee classes."

The Cherokee language is also taught at Sequoyah Elementary School in Tahlequah, plus a few public schools and colleges in Oklahoma.

But Hastings wants the program expanded. For smaller tribes with fewer fluent speakers the urgency is more pronounced than for the Cherokees.

Indian languages originally were only spoken, but missionaries, anthropologists and linguists developed written languages for many of the tribes over the years. Each tribe has its own language but there are regional dialects in the spoken form. Preserving the oral tradition depends on adult speakers teaching the language to the younger generation.

In some tribes the language is disappearing so fast there are fears a generation may someday be left without a language to pass on to their children, says Ofelia Zepeda, co-director of the Institute of American Indian Language Development at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"You are trying to create new speakers in the young population, but at the same time you are very likely losing your old speakers," she says. "You can't wait around."

As a result, the enrollment in a summer program at the university that teaches Indian teachers methods of language instruction is growing every year. About 67 students from tribes in the United States and Canada enrolled in the 20-year-old program earlier this year.

At the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., Director Inee Slaughter agrees many tribal leaders feel the urgency to preserve their language more than ever.

"They recognize that it's a race against time," she says.

Programs must be well planned and effective, she says, and that's the mission of the institute as a clearinghouse for information on the preservation of native languages. The institute develops instructional materials and sponsors programs to further preservation of the native languages.

In April, the institute's third annual Youth Language Fair for preschoolers through 19 attracted 185 youths representing 13 languages and tribes, some from as far away as the Eastern Band of the Cherokees in North
Carolina. This was up from only 12 entries the first year.

Slaughter says one of the biggest challenges is convincing youngsters of the importance of learning their tribe's language when they live in an English-speaking world.

"We are saying you are the carrier of the history, wisdom, and all the traditions that make the people who they are," she says.

 Maps by Travel

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