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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 13, 2002 - Issue 65


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Reviving Languages, Saving Cultures

credits: art Want to Play? by Virginia Stroud

June 21, 2002 -- "Windtalkers," this summer’s box office drama about World War II’s Navajo code talkers, may have brought the beauty of Native American languages to the big screen, but in real life, many make up a growing list of endangered tongues.

The painful legacy of assimilation and the dominance of majority culture have both taken their toll. Fewer than 150 Native American languages out of the hundreds that once existed remain.

And as fluent speakers become older in age and fewer in number, the fate of the remaining Native American languages rests with the youth.

Experts and educators alike say both parents and immersion-style schools and camps hold the most promising hope for rescuing the dying languages and reconnecting children with their culture.

"Our children have to learn who they are and where they came from," says Darrin Cisco, language coordinator for the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.

Summers, he said, provide a special opportunity for his tribe and other tribes across the country to immerse Native American children in their heritage and language.

At the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma’s annual culture camp, youth learn everything from Apache language and songs to how to put up a tee-pee. This year’s camp, held in mid-June, served 43 kids aged 10-18.

"The kids come back each year and they just know more and more," said Cisco. "Many who came this year returned singing the songs and using the words they learned last year. This tells us that it is working and they want to learn about themselves."

Cisco says programs like the culture camp not only teach Native American youth to speak the language, but also to be proud of where they came from. Although he is pleased with what kids are learning in Native American summer camps, Cisco acknowledges that relearning a language and reconnecting with a culture is an ongoing process.

Georgia McKinley, a teacher at Southern Ute Academy in Ignacio, Colo., agrees. As one of only 100 fluent Ute speakers on the Southern Ute Reservation, she knows the importance of relearning and reconnecting.

Her school, now two years old, is the only tribally-funded Montessori school in the nation. Currently, the school serves about 60 students from infants to nine-year-olds who are learning to carry on the Ute language year round.

"Yuga, yuga. Nuuwaigeavaro (Come in. Come in. Let’s talk Ute)," McKinley greets the children each day. She says her students are learning a great deal more than reading, writing and arithmetic. "They’re also learning their culture."

Along with traditional academic courses, each day students work on the "five components" required to teach a culture: foods, shelter, clothing, transportation and communication.

From the days of the week to the weather to the parts of the body, McKinley’s students spend about 45 minutes per day singing, chanting, responding and interacting in Ute.

Hearing the sounds of little voices in her native tongue is music to her ears, McKinley says. But, it’s a stark contrast to her own educational experience some 50 years ago.

Like thousands of other Native Americans, McKinley attended a boarding school for Native Americans where she was not only forbidden to speak Ute in school, she was also reprimanded if caught doing so.

She remembers vividly a time she did get caught.

"They made me walk around the campus and pick up trash until I had collected a handful," said McKinley. "Our campus was very clean and I had a hard time finding any trash -- I think I might have found one gum wrapper. So, I started picking up weeds to fill my hand."

McKinley says boarding schools like the one she attended are largely to blame for dwindling indigenous languages.

"Parents who went through the boarding school experience stopped speaking to their children in the Native languages because they did not want their children to go through the same experience."

The boarding school experience taught Native American youth that in order to be successful or get a good job, they must abandon their culture, says McKinley. And Native Americans are now paying the price for that abandonment.

Jon Reyhner, a professor of bilingual and multicultural education at Northern Arizona University, says he believes now more than ever parents must play a role in reviving dying languages.

"You’ll only preserve the language when mothers and fathers talk to the young children in the home," said Reyhner. "Schools really play a secondary role. It has to begin with the parents."

Reyhner says Native American communities must realize that holding on to their Native languages doesn’t hold the same stigma that it did decades ago.

"Parents have to know ‘it isn’t going to hurt your child in going off to college or doing well in their professional lives.’"

And McKinley and Reyhner both agree that if something isn’t done quickly, many aspects of Native American culture could be lost forever.

"Language and culture are tied together with identity," said Reyhner. "When you lose your language, you are in a sense giving up who you are."

McKinley is looking ahead to a new generation of youth. And, if she has anything to do with it, they will stand proud of their identity and carry on their traditions for many years to come.

"It’s working," said McKinley. "All over the Western U.S., we’re trying and the children are listening. Our culture is coming back."

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