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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Advocate for Apache Language


by Bonnie Henry Arizona Daily Star


credits: Edgar Perry Sings the National Anthem in Apache (photo by Bruce Petrarca,


Edgar Perry Sings the National Anthem in ApacheGeronimo spoke it. So did Cochise. For hundreds of years, Apaches roamed the Southwest, speaking the language of their fathers' fathers.

But now television and the Internet are doing what years of warfare and incarceration failed to do.

"We're losing our language. And when we do that, we become a lost tribe. We become a white man, just like you."

The words belong to Edgar Perry, a White Mountain Apache who is striving to save his people's language - and way of life.

Perry will speak in Tucson on Wednesday as part of the Arizona Historical Society's 2004 Summer Series Lecture.

An educator who continues to teach the Apache language, Perry has lectured on Apache history and culture from Paris to Rome, Boston to Phoenix.

He is also a well-known storyteller and Apache Crown Dancer and delights in teaching the ancient traditions to others.

"Singing is very good. All the words are in Apache," says Perry, who was born 66 years ago on what was then called the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Apache was his first language. "When I was 6 years old, I went to school at McNary." English, he says, "was the hardest thing to learn."

So, apparently, was Apache - at least for certain Anglos.

Because soldiers in the early 1900s has trouble pronouncing Indian names, Perry's grandfather and father were both assigned number tags for identification.

His grandfather, who was one of the last Apache scouts, was A-43; his father, V-70.

Though Perry himself wears no number ID, his last name is that of a white man, Maj. David Perry, his grandfather's commanding officer.

Close to 25,000 Apaches now live in the state, Perry estimates. About 15,000 of them have ties to the White Mountain Apache Reservation, whose capital is Whiteriver, about 190 miles northeast of Tucson.

Years ago, Perry began working on an Apache-language dictionary - an outgrowth from an oral history project he and others had undertaken.

"We would take a tape recorder out and record the old people. But when we went to translate them, we didn't know how to phonetically write the Apache language," Perry says.

"All those beautiful, taped stories - we decided to write a dictionary."

He's not alone. Hopi Emory Sekaquaptewa, a University of Arizona research anthropologist, has helped create a Hopi dictionary.

And Ofelia Zepeda, a UA linguistics professor, has written the first grammar book of the Tohono O'odham language, her native tongue.

It is in his native tongue that Perry sings the hymns in church. He can also sing the national anthem in Apache.

Few among his people, however, are as skilled.

Only 30 percent of high school students in Whiteriver 10 years ago could speak the language fluently, Perry says.

Meanwhile in the more isolated Cibecue, 50 miles away, 90 percent were fluent in Apache, he adds.

But even the most isolated regions now have VCR players, rap music spewing forth on boom boxes and computers.

"Everything's in English," says Perry, often asked by parents how to instill in their children the Apache culture and language.

"I tell them to turn off the TV and to speak to them in Apache. All the time."

Still, he remains less than hopeful, even as he continues to train the young boys in the ways of the Crown Dance.

"I try to speak about the language, the Apache culture, yesterday and today. Tomorrow, we will have no more. We will become white men."

"We Are Losing Geronimo's Language" will be presented at 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 18, in the auditorium of the Arizona Historical Society, 949 E. Second St. Tucson, AZ 85719. Cost is $6, $5 for Historical Society members. For more information, call (520) 628-5774.

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