Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
February 12, 2000 - Issue 03

Suffocating in Silence
Adapted By Vicki Lockard from an article in the LATimes

More than an ocean separates Katherine Silva Saubel on the Morongo Reservation at the foot of the arid, wind-swept San Gorgonio Pass near Banning from the language renaissance underway in Hawaii.

The silence suffocating many languages is almost tangible in her darkened, cinder-block living room. There, in a worn beige recliner flanked by a fax machine, a treadmill and a personal computer, Saubel, a 79-year-old Cahuilla Indian activist and scholar, marshals her resistance to time and the inroads of English.

Saubel is the last fluent speaker of her native tongue on this reservation.

"Since my husband died," she said, "there is no one here I can converse with."

For 50 years, this broad-shouldered great-grandmother has worked almost single-handedly to ensure the survival of Cahuilla. Her efforts earned her a place in the National Women's Hall of Fame and a certificate of merit from the state Indian Museum in Sacramento. Even so, her language is slipping away.

"I wanted to teach the children the language, but their mothers wanted them to know English. A lot of them want the language taught to them now," Saubel said. "Maybe it will revive."

If it does, it will be a recovery based almost solely on the memories she has pronounced and defined for academic tape recorders, the words she has filed in the only known dictionary of Cahuilla, and the songs she has helped commit to living tribal memory. Tribal artifacts and memorabilia are housed in the nearby Makli Museum that she founded, the first in North America to be organized and managed by Native Americans.

Born on the Los Coyotes Reservation east of Warm Springs, Saubel did not even see a white person until she was 4 years old--"I thought he was sick," she recalled--and English had no place in her world until she was 7.

Then her mother--who spoke neither English nor Spanish--sent her to a public school.

She was, she recalled, the only Indian girl in the classroom. She could not speak English. No one tried to teach her to speak the language, she said. Mostly, she was ignored.

"I would speak to them in the Indian language and they would answer me in English. I don't remember when I began to understand what was being said to me," Saubel said. "Maybe a year."

Even so, by eighth grade she had discovered a love of learning that led her to become the first Indian woman to graduate from Palm Springs High School. But she also saw the other Indian children taken aside at recess and whipped if they spoke their language in school.

In time, the child of an Indian medicine woman became an ethno-botanist.

For linguists as far away as Germany and Japan, she became both a research subject and a collaborator. She is working now with UC San Diego researchers to catalog all the medicinal plants identified in tribal lore.

"My race is dying," she said. "I am saving the remnants of my culture in these books.

"I am just a voice in the wilderness all by myself," Saubel said. "But I have made these books as something for my great-grandchildren. And I have great-grandchildren."

In its broadest outlines, her life is a refrain repeated on many mainland reservations.

"Basically, every American Indian language is endangered," said Douglas Whalen at Yale University's Haskins Laboratory, who is chairman of the Endangered Languages Fund.

As a matter of policy, Native American families often were broken up to keep children from learning to speak like their parents. Indian boarding schools, founded in the last century to implement that policy, left generations of Indians with no direct connection to their language or tribal cultures.

Today, the federal administration for Native Americans dispenses about $2 million in language grants to tribes every year. But even the best efforts to preserve the skeletons of grammar, vocabulary and syntax cannot breathe life into a language that its people have abandoned.

Still, from the Kuruk of Northern California to the Chitimacha of Louisiana and the Abenaki of Vermont, dozens of tribes are trying to rekindle their languages.

Mohawk is taught in upstate New York, Lakota on the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Ute in Utah, Choctaw in Mississippi, and Kickapoo in Oklahoma. The Navajo Nation--with 80,000 native speakers--has its own comprehensive, college-level training to produce Navajo-speaking teachers for the 240 schools in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah that have large numbers of Navajo students.

Some tribes, acknowledging that too few tribal members still speak their language, have switched to English for official business while trying to give children a feel for the words and catch-phrases of their native language.

When people do break through to fluency, they tap a hidden wellspring of community.

"I was in my own language, not just saying the words, but my own thoughts," said Nancy Steele of Crescent City, an advanced apprentice in the Karuk language.

"When you lose a language, it's like dropping a bomb on a museum."
Kenneth Hale, linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Native American languages when Columbus landed: 300

Number spoken today: 175


Still spoken in homes by children: 20
Where: Mostly in New Mexico and Arizona
Examples: Navajo, Western Apache, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai-Hualapai


Still spoken by parents and elders: 30
Where: Montana, Iowa, Alaska
Examples: Crow and Cheyenne, Mesquakie, Jicarilla Apache


Spoken only by elders: 70
Where: California, Alaska, Oregon, Maine, Washington
Examples: Tlingit, Passamaquoddy, Winnebago, Comanche, Yuma, Nez Perce, Kalispel, Yakima, Makah


Spoken by fewer than 10 elders: 55
Where: California, Washington, Iowa, North Dakota
Examples: Eyak, Mandan, Pawnee, Wichita, Omaha, Washoe


The Malki Museum


Native American Desert Peoples

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