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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 15, 2001 - Issue 51


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Tribes Race to Save Dying Languages

by Tara Briggs and Steven Carter The Oregonian December 9, 2001
credits: art Laughing Horse by Carol Grigg

Laughing Horse by Carol GriggMichael and Cecelia Collins watch closely as Suzie Slockish writes on a marker board the words -- kusi, kusi kusi, lakas, pinaq'inut'awas.

Horse, dog, mouse, window. The Sahaptin words are the gateway to a language of their ancestors -- a language that could die out in a generation if young people don't begin speaking it in their everyday lives.

"It was our children who got us motivated to trying the classes," said Michael Collins, an accountant who lives with his wife and family on the sprawling sage and juniper-dotted Warm Springs Reservation. "Our little daughter at 21/2 knew more of the language than we did."

Michael, 31, grew up in Seattle hearing his grandmother, Alice Charley, speaking Yakama, a Sahaptin dialect. Cecelia, 25, heard her late grandfather, Delbert Frank Sr., a Warm Springs elder, speaking Sahaptin.

So for a year, Michael and Cecelia Collins have taken Sahaptin in night classes in the long house in Simnasho taught by Slockish, 56, who knew the language before she knew English. The Collins' five children are learning Sahaptin at Warm Springs Elementary School.

Sahaptin is the language of tribes along the Columbia River east of The Dalles. It is one of 25 languages that were spoken by people in the area that is now Oregon before it was a state. Today, only seven of those languages are still spoken.

The Oregon Legislature passed a law in June patterned after Nebraska legislation that enables tribal language speakers such as Slockish to become certified to teach native languages in Oregon's public schools. They don't need college degrees or specific teacher training -- only credentials from their tribe.

Nationally, Native American leaders say the law is one of the most far-reaching and practical gestures of support from a state government to tribes. It takes effect as Oregon tribes gear up for their most critical effort to pass on these remaining languages before the last elder speakers die.

"Losing a language," said Inee Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., "is like burning down a library that is the repository of a people's entire culture, geography and historic knowledge."

U.S. policy damaged languages The original languages of America were dealt a near fatal blow in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the United States forced generations of tribal children to attend boarding schools where they were isolated from their families and threatened with beatings and other violence for speaking their languages.

A 1950s government policy disbanded tribes by terminating their governments, including many in Western Oregon, and selling reservation lands. A related policy enticed Native Americans to relocate to big cities far from home. The government's efforts broke up families, where language and culture were traditionally taught.

Many Oregon languages -- including the Umpqua's Takelma, Grand Ronde's Molala, Umatilla's Cayuse -- disappeared between 1900 and 1960 when the last people who spoke them died.

But in the 1970s, a new generation of Native American educators started pushing for reforms of U.S. policy, insisting that tribal culture was key to the healthy upbringing of Native American children. They looked to the Maoris of New Zealand and Hawaiians for models of how native languages could be restored. Those groups developed what they called language nests --immersion day-care programs, preschools and, in time, schools run by fluent speakers.

In 1990, Congress -- pushed by native Hawaiians and Alaskans -- took the first step in repudiating old government policies by passing the Native American Languages Act. Two years later, Congress provided enough money to begin helping some tribal language programs, but 560 U.S. tribes, representing 175 surviving languages, compete for limited federal grants.

Languages' prospects mixed The prospects for saving some of Oregon's native languages are mixed. More than half of Native Americans today live in cities where there is little chance to hear their languages spoken. Language programs are based in rural tribal communities, near elderly speakers. Some languages, such as Chetco and Tututni, have only one or two elderly speakers still alive. The only languages in Oregon with more than a handful of fluent speakers are Northern Paiute and Sahaptin, said Scott DeLancey, director of the Northwest Indian Language Institute at the University of Oregon.

Six Oregon tribes have started language programs. Each is as unique as its language, and each is in a different stage of development. They are tied together, though, by the reliance on the long memories of elders to bring the languages back to life.

The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla have more speakers of their languages, Sahaptin and Nez Perce, than many Oregon tribes. But they are trying to preserve several dialects of Sahaptin with only four to 15 fluent speakers of each. A linguist works with elders to write dictionaries for all.

The language office is set up like a living room with a pot of coffee always brewing. Every day elder speakers meet and converse in their dialects, which are close enough that they often understand one another. Younger people stop by, asking how to say words and trying to say sentences. Each exchange brings up more words for the linguist to document and inspires the elders to remember older expressions -- such as detailed words for distant relatives that have no translation in English.

"We don't talk it enough" Program director Mildred Quempts, 48, was raised by her grandmother, who was born in the 1880s. Quempts, who spoke only Sahaptin until she started first grade, knows that school and popular culture will teach her children English. But only she and her brothers can pass down the Umatilla dialect of Sahaptin to their children, cousins and friends, and they do so at family dinners once a week.

They tell family stories, and Quempts acts out little parts -- like someone playing a stick game or paying for groceries. Not everyone understands, but they pick up words and sometimes threads of stories. One woman holds up a fork full of fried chicken, asking for the Sahaptin word. Quempts' son offers, "Wash wash noo." Then a fork full of mashed potatoes. Another child answers, "Lapatat."

"My kids understand," Quempts said. "But I am really concerned about our language. We don't talk it enough. We're too lax. The more we speak English, the more we lose it."

In Grand Ronde, where remnants of about 25 bands and tribes were brought together in a reservation, Tony Johnson has been building a language program based on Chinuk-Wawa, the hybrid language that coastal peoples developed to communicate with English- and French-speaking fur traders -- and to one another. The young Chinook became fluent by studying the written record of the language and learning from elders.

The tribe now offers before- and after-school language instruction and adult education classes that carry university credit. The tribe hopes to launch a pre-school language immersion program next year. Johnson is developing a Chinuk-Wawa dictionary with the help of linguist Henry Zenk, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the language.

Language restoration is less advanced among the Siletz, but culture director Robert Kentta has dreams. The tribe is producing a language videotape, audio tapes and workbooks that students can use at home or in informal language groups. Eventually, the tribe hopes to have fluent speakers of Southwest Coast Athabaskan who can teach at the tribal headquarters and the tribe's field offices in Portland and other cities.

Bill brings other pressures Oregon's Senate Bill 690, the Native American teaching legislation, was aimed at helping ease the pathway into the classroom for native speakers on reservations or in off-reservation schools with a high percentage of Native American children. But it also created pressure to formalize the way native languages are taught. There are efforts to use technology such as satellite hook-ups and Web sites that are foreign to some elder speakers.

"Many people simply want to know words," said Myrtle Peck, a Burns Paiute elder and teacher. "That's the way I started speaking, by learning the names of things."

The native language program at Warm Springs Elementary is the most extensive in Oregon. About 300 children are learning Kiksht, Sahaptin or Northern Paiute four days a week, a half-hour a day. The fourth-graders have been taking language lessons since kindergarten.

"It's bringing the kids much closer to their culture," said Principal Dawn Smith, who is a Klamath.

The school's language and cultural heritage classes not only teach students about tribal traditions, but also are part of an effort to boost academic achievement. Smith credits the classes with improving students' self-esteem, a key to improved academic performance.

"In the past several years,we've seen how the more the kids believe in themselves and their abilities, the more they feel comfortable with themselves, the easier it is to engage them in learning," she said.

Language can be taught in school, but teachers say their best students are their own families who naturally pick up words and phrases while practicing other tribal traditions. Patricia Teeman Miller, a 52-year-old Paiute who teaches at Warm Springs, remembers from her childhood family gatherings when everyone spoke in Paiute.

"I think we all grew up digging roots, getting berries and being helpers," Miller said. "There was no TV. People talked to each other in their language."

Many elders are pleased that the languages of their childhood are being taught again in the schools. Madeline McInturff and Gladys Johnson, Warm Spring elders who are both 86, smile when they visit the Kiksht classes, where the children greet them and then spout off numbers, point to parts of their bodies and sing songs in Kiksht.

McInturff recalls the times years ago at boarding school in Warm Springs when she was scolded for speaking the language of her birth. Now, Kiksht survives in a new generation.

"Language," she says, "is how you know who you are."

Small Things Count for Big Things
Myra Shawaway, manager of the tribal Culture and Heritage Department, was born in Warm Springs of a Paiute father and raised by a grandmother who spoke Sahaptin, the language of the Warm Springs people.


Warm Springs Reservation
Welcome to Warm Springs, a nation where the sun shines most every day and time turns to the pace of a culture that has been thousands of years in the making.

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