Virginia Beavert was just a teenager, she was appointed by the Yakama
Tribal Council to work with an anthropologist studying the tribe's
culture on the reservation.
was the only tribal member then who could speak English and several
dialects of the 14 different tribes that make up the Yakama Nation.
had to talk to the people in their own dialect," 87-year-old
had no idea that her translating skills would eventually lead her
to helping the tribe preserve its language.
after playing a key role in developing a 576-page dictionary of
her native language, she has been awarded an honorary doctorate
degree from the University of Washington.
was quite surprised," she said. "I've been working on
this dictionary for quite some years.
starts way back in my life, when I was still young yet. I learned
to read and write the language."
degrees are usually based on significant contributions made to a
specific field or to society in general rather than traditional
Friday, Heritage University, where she teaches her native language,
will hold a dinner celebrating her honorary degree.
do have a deep respect for her," Yakama General Council Vice
Chairwoman Mavis Kindness said. "She's one of the few fluent
speakers. She's probably the last one of our fluent speakers that
can read and write the language."
not only led a project to write the dictionary, but also earned
a bilingual and bicultural master's degree from the University of
Arizona in 1997 and continues to teach her native language.
grew up speaking Yakama, and her mother spoke little English.
her stepfather always encouraged education, she said.
told my mother that he wanted me to go to public schools because
I am going to have to communicate with other people after they are
gone," she recalled.
the first woman official elected to the tribe's General Council,
said the first languages she learned were Nez Perce, Umatilla and
Klickitat. Later, she said she learned Yakama and English.
did she learn them all?
being around older people," she said.
when she began writing down the language, it caused a rift between
her and her mother, who held strong to tradition and the tribe's
wasn't until her mother attended a conference in Vancouver, British
Columbia, and learned that many tribes were losing their language,
that she became supportive, Beavert said.
realized how important the work was and agreed to help," Beavert
recalled. "Oh, that was the best news I had in my life. It
was very emotional for me. After that, she was a big help."
Beavert is working on a thesaurus of the Yakama language for linguistic
studies, she said.
said there is a sudden interest in the Yakama language among professors.
a while, we were pretty low on the totem pole," she said. "I
don't even think they respected our language."