Indian languages are struggling to survive
Tribes are trying to bring back native tongue
Gannett News Service
May. 27, 2003 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - Rita Coosewoon, whose last name means "gray eyes" in Comanche,
remembers being forced to skip a meal or sit on the basement steps of her school
all night for speaking her native language.
"I sure had a hard time, because I couldn't ask any (questions) because they
would punish me for not speaking English," said
Coosewoon, 71. "What a twist that they want me to teach a language that they
wanted to get rid of."
Coosewoon is the only public school teacher in Oklahoma teaching Comanche.
She and others worry that tribes are in a race against time to save their
languages, a vital part of American Indian culture, before they die off with
tribal elders. Consider:
• A 1997 study by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians found 3 percent of
their children younger than 6 could speak the language.
• Only an estimated 2,000 Ojibwes, or Chippewas, out of more than100,000 in the
United States speak the language.
• One study predicts that 80 percent of the nation's 175 existing Indian
languages will disappear in the next generation if nothing is done
because the vast majority of speakers are older than 60.
The situation is especially dire in California, where there are no longer any
native speakers of 35 tribal languages and only a handful who speak 50 other
languages, according to Leanne Hinton, chairwoman of the University of
California at Berkeley linguistics department.
"Here in California we have 50 languages . . . almost all of them are spoken by
people over 60," Hinton said.
But tribes are taking steps to revive their languages, with the help of funds
from gambling or the government. Some tribes are spending
their casino profits on preschools where children are immersed in their native
Language revitalization started in the 1970s in Hawaii, where the Aha Punana Leo
language organization brought together preschoolers with island elders. The
children then were moved into language immersion schools. Members of the first
senior class, who speak both Hawaiian and English, graduated in 1999.
The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula, Calif., started a preschool
program last year that teaches both English and Luiseno.
With fewer than 10 native speakers, all older than 70, the tribe voted to spend
$200,000 of its casino profits on the program, said Gary DuBois, director of
cultural resources. The Pechangas hired Eric Elliott, a linguist who has learned
four California Indian languages, to repeat in Luiseno what English-speaking
teachers say in class.
"We can't use (elders) as resources because they're too frail," DuBois said.
"We're running against time."
The Pechangas could eventually expand their language immersion classes through
elementary and even high school, similar to the
Hawaiian system, he said.
Most tribes don't have big casino profits to plow into language programs.
Congress passed legislation in the early 1990s that funded
language revitalization programs but these short-term grants leave programs in a
constant hunt for funds, said Mary Hermes, an education professor at the
University of Minnesota in Duluth. She also is a board member and parent at the
Waadookodaading Ojibwe language immersion school in Hayward, Wis.
American Indians blame the government for eradicating their languages by pushing
them off their lands, removing children to English-speaking boarding schools,
like the one Coosewoon attended, and barring them from talking in school in
their native tongue.
"It is really the responsibility of the government that we're in this
situation," Hermes said. "We're not asking for money because of the
harm suffered. We're asking for efforts to revitalize our language."