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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 20, 2001 - Issue 47


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 Tribe Welcomes the Written Word
Yavapai Nation moving beyond oral tradition to preserve its language


 by Sarah Anchors-The Arizona Republic-October 7, 2001

Karen Ray's father told her the Yavapai tale that the coyote howls in the early morning because the spirit of his son went up in smoke before dawn.

Ms. Ray, 45, wants to make the story into a children's book so other kids can read it in their native language.

The problem: Yavapai is not written. Instead, it's handed down orally from generation to generation, elders teaching youngsters the difference between, for instance, eenee a scary surprise and weee a happy surprise.

Of the 900-plus members of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, however, only about 40 speak Yavapai fluently. Most of them are 45 years old and older.

Ms. Ray has started organizing a Yavapai alphabet and dictionary to reverse the trend. The tribe is looking for a linguist to help choose an alphabet that fits the language and a researcher to gather and record words and stories.

"When you really notice that the children don't understand, don't speak it, you start thinking about what are we going to do about this," said Sheila Nicholas, a Hopi and program developer at University of Arizona's American Indian Languages Development Institute.

The tribe is not the first to face the dilemma. The Hopi and Navajo are among the larger tribes that have adopted writing systems and dictionaries to preserve their language.

And even with interest growing in recording Yavapai, there's an understanding that certain stories are too sacred to be written.

"They are stories we were taught to use only in the fall and winter," said Irene McLevain, a Yavapai teacher for adults. "If they were written, it would be all year long."

The languages' decline is partly a legacy of boarding schools where teachers punished students for speaking their native languages. From the late 1800s until the 1960s, American Indian children were shipped off to boarding schools, including the Phoenix Indian School. In the '60s, Americans Indians began taking control of their education.

A Yavapai community school, with some Yavapai language instruction, opened in 1971 on the Fort McDowell Reservation. Teachers at the 'Hman 'shaw Elementary School adorn their classrooms with Yavapai words for the 90 students in preschool through third grade. And there's at least one hour of Yavapai instruction a week at Ms. Ray's new language lab.

The 10 kindergartners in Vada Gate's class start the school day practicing colors and numbers one through 10 in Yavapai.

When she points to the color blue, a boy pipes up, "hav' sui ."

Ms. Gates said it's a good start. The problem is, the third-graders aren't much more advanced.

Cynthia Lewis' third-graders know some commands, such as "sit down," as well as body parts and animals, but several say they can't understand their grandparents' Yavapai.

"I know the 'Good afternoon' song, and I know behave in Yavapai," said Ciara Armenta, 8. "And last year when we each had a Yavapai name I was a cat, and that's kiee."

At the Fort McDowell Choir rehearsal at the community's Mormon Church, a consistent writing system would make rehearsals a lot easier.

Mormon elder Luther Sweet and about a dozen Yavapai choir members translate lyrics into written Yavapai so the group can sing traditional hymns in their native language.

Mr. Sweet writes down the translated songs phonetically with English letters. The result is a basic but consistent written version of the hymns.

"I write [the songs] in what to me makes sense," he said. "It's difficult to make it immediately identifiable to people."

A consistent writing system would make learning Yavapai easier for all sorts of groups, said tribal police Sgt. Mark Bach.

He and other tribal police officers attend Monday night adult Yavapai language classes, part of Ms. Ray's initiative to preserve the language, to help them gain the respect and trust of the community.

"I'd like to be able to say some generic things," Sgt. Bach said. "Most people here speak English, but out of respect to the elders I'd like to learn some of the background."

One thing Sgt. Bach has learned, much to his dismay: The word for policeman translates into "the man who puts you in jail."

    Maps by Travel

Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation
The current boundaries of the Fort McDowell reservation mark only a small portion of the ancestral territory of the bands of Yavapais whos homeland was the vast area called Arizona and the Mogollon Rim country.The Yavapai Indians descended from the Hohokam culture and have a language similar to the Havasupai and Hualapai Indians.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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