As time treks through Indian country, the words of ancient songs and
sacred rituals crumble under the weight of the dominant language.
"I hear more and more English on the reservation," said Danny Lopez, who
teaches Tohono O'odham at the Sells community college. "A lot of children
don't know our language anymore."
But a language revival of sorts has gripped many American Indian tribes
working to keep their mother tongues vibrant.
Just southwest of Tucson, in the San Xavier District of the Tohono
O'odham Nation, children and their parents learn the language of their
ancestors in special classes. In Nebraska, Ho-Chunk youths absorb an elder's
words preserved in 1,500 audiotapes about life on the reservation. In
Montana, mothers immerse their newborns and toddlers in a new language
They are some of the initiatives being discussed this month at the
University of Arizona, where 20 tribal members hope to learn how to preserve
declining indigenous languages. "Gathering Talk: Documenting, Describing and
Revitalizing Our Languages" is the theme of the American Indian Language
Development Institute this summer.
The residential program has offered training since 1979 to teachers of
indigenous languages. But institute director Ofelia Zepeda said it is the
first time tribal members have received a fellowship from the National
Science Foundation to focus on language preservation.
She and other linguists say the reasons for language loss are complex. But
they note that American Indian languages historically were suppressed in
government attempts to assimilate tribes into mainstream society.
In 1995, the Alaska Native Language Center found that of 175 indigenous
languages still spoken in the United States, 155 were moribund because
children no longer learned them.
"It's a huge loss," noted Zepeda, who is Tohono O'odham. "Young people
are not learning their language, but that's because the adults are not using
Growing up, that was certainly the case for Don Preston, an artist who
grew up away from the Tohono O'odham Reservation. He returned as an adult
and since March has attended a weekly language class in the evening at the
San Xavier District Education Center.
"My parents never taught me, and I always wanted to learn to speak my own
language," said Preston, 52. "It's like going back to my own roots."
Jodi Burshia, one of the fellows at the university, said she also wants
to learn the language of her ancestors. Her ancestry includes Pueblo,
Navajo, Sioux, Chippewa and French Canadian, but she speaks none of the
"I want to know about all of them," said Burshia, who grew up with the
Laguna Pueblo people in New Mexico and now lives in Tucson. Burshia, like
the other fellows, is learning how to write effective grant proposals to
secure outside funding for language documentation when tribal money falls
short. She said she hopes to help collect and preserve letters, tapes and
other documents in her Laguna community.
Marvin Weatherwax, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in northwestern
Montana, said the death of elders in the past two years has meant a drop in
the number of fluent native speakers to 350 from 500. Eighteen new speakers
were gained in the past five years, said Weatherwax, who teaches language at
his reservation's community college.
Last summer, the UA fellow said, he determined by knocking on doors that
1,500 tribal members understand Blackfeet but rarely speak it. He calls them
"sleepers," and his goal is to reawaken their knowledge about the language
so they can share it with youngsters.
"We can't lose our language," said Weatherwax, 59. "Without it, you lose
pretty much your identity, you lose pretty much everything."
In the Ho-Chunk Nation of Nebraska, Caroline Frenchman, another fellow,
said tribal members teach the language to students from preschool to college
two to three times a week.
"But that is not enough," she said.
Five fluent speakers remain among the roughly 2,600 enrolled members in
the state, she said. To stir interest in the language, tribal members are
digitizing the 1,500 audiotapes that a late elder, Stanford Whitewater, left
behind. Frenchman said Whitewater's recordings contain a wealth of language
lessons and tribal history.
Frenchman, 42, said she studied her native language under Whitewater for
five years before he died at age 90 recently. The language apprentice said
she never learned Ho-Chunk from her grandparents, who raised her.
Now, she herself is learning the language as she tries to save it from
extinction. "There's an old legend that says if the language ever dies, the
world will cease to exist," she said. "I don't want it to die."
Marie Sanchez, a Northern Cheyenne who teaches the tribal language to
elementary school students, characterized as severe the language loss among
youngsters in her northeastern Montana reservation. "Our youngest fluent
speaker is 30," said Sanchez, 67.
To counter the downward trend, tribal members plan to expand an immersion
program for mothers and infants, Sanchez said. "We want to get them back
into learning the language and traditions before childbirth," she said of
Seeing so many youths no longer speak Cheyenne saddens Sanchez, but at
the same time, "it makes me want to try harder."