Goodyear man keeps Zuni language alive
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 8, 2006
Christine L. Romero
The boxes were tucked away when the government found Curtis Cook on the
They had been in storage for about 20 years - not quite forgotten but now
collecting dust. The Library of Congress wanted the documents that Cook created
with the help of the seven Zuni elders.
In those boxes sat years of Cook's life and work. It was the originations of the
written Zuni language, and the library wanted it. Creating a Zuni alphabet was a
mission that Cook took on alone, right after he finished some graduate
linguistic studies in the mid-1960s. His first goal was to create a Zuni version
of the Bible, but he quickly realized the language didn't have a written form.
The Goodyear man dedicated 15 years to the Zuni people, who live predominantly
in New Mexico and in Arizona east of Flagstaff.
Without Cook's efforts, it's likely that the Zuni language could have perished
as the elders passed away and young Zunis forgot the tongue.
Forgetting the language would have forever cut a tie between the generations of
"I became concerned that many of their old stories and the richness of their
history would be lost to posterity as the elders, who were the storytellers,
began to die off," Cook said. The elders were all older than 100 when Cook began
The Library of Congress' intention is to preserve the work and eventually make
the traditional Zuni stories more widely available.
Cook's work has allowed the Zunis to teach their written language to children
from kindergarten through high school on the reservation. The Zuni words are
even on street signs, which Cook proudly notes are spelled correctly.
By the end of this year, The Curtis Cook Collection is expected to be finally
inducted into the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center.
During his time on the reservation, Cook also approached the Zuni Tribal Council
and suggested that some of the tribe's stories should be recorded and preserved.
The council agreed and eventually about 300 reel-to-reel tapes were created with
Zuni oral histories, folk tales and religious teachers.
The Curtis Cook Collection will include those tapes, transcriptions, learning
guides and some Zuni publications.
Now at 67, Cook is the associate state director of community outreach for AARP
Arizona. Previously, he was director of the National Indian Council on Aging.
When Cook talks about his time with the Zuni, known as "a friendly people,"
his eyes light up and seem to dance with respect and excitement.
In telling traditional Zuni stories, he infuses rhythmic Zuni words with English
ones. To the English-speaking ear, the Zuni language seems breathy and includes
many pauses that translate into meaning.
On the reservation, Cook's constant chattering and repetition of Zuni words and
phrases earned him the names the Mockingbird and later the Locust among the Zuni
Pueblo, now around 10,000 people.
Language experts say there likely still are pockets of the world where some
languages exist only orally.
Cook's intent was to create a Zuni version of the Bible. Other oral traditions
have morphed into written languages in a similar missionary fashion, experts
The power of the written word is recognized across various cultures and faiths.
For example, some Jews don't spell out the name for God on documents that could
be destroyed or mistreated in some way. Instead, the name is written "G-d,"
because it is believed that the word has a power of its own.
For many, the preservation of language in a written form allows them to stay
connected with their history and roots.
"Oral tradition keeps certain kinds of intergenerational contacts," said Guha
Shankar, folklife specialist with the American Folklife Center. "It keeps
Without a written documentation, the Zuni oral tradition could have been lost,
Cook's work piqued the Library of Congress' interest because he collaborated
directly with native speakers in the pueblo, Shankar said.
"The difficulty with some cultural communities is that as older speakers of the
language pass away, the future generations aren't as likely to pick it up," he
said. "Then you have some suggesting that the language might not be around for
Cook meticulously made language records, including transcribing traditional
stories passed down through the generations.
"I was concerned that all of their history would be lost forever," Cook said.
"My belief is when people get their language in writing it launches a whole new
era. We take notes so we can remember."
Cook used the International Phonetic Alphabet, a commonly accepted series of
symbols among linguists, to capture the Zuni language.
It took Cook only about six months to learn the language, he said.
The Zunis loved to see the language in print, he said. Reading became something
of a novelty on the reservation. He taught a young boy to read in Zuni, and soon
the boy was going from house to house simply reading.
"He became a rock star with the Zunis because he could read and the older people
couldn't," Cook said.