New speakers of ancient tongues
Arizona Daily Star
June 17,  2006

Tucson, Arizona | Published:
Indian tribes find teaching is last hope for saving native languages
By Lourdes Medrano

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 program.

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.

The fellows represent languages from a number of American Indian tribes, including Oneida, Ho-Chunk, Blackfeet, Coushatta, Sahaptin, Southern Ute, Cheyenne, Laguna-Keres, Okanagan, Tohono O'odham and Akimel O'odham.

The decline of indigenous languages has been well documented, but "of late we're having more tribes acknowledge it," Zepeda said.

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 it."

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 languages.

"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 expectant mothers.

Seeing so many youths no longer speak Cheyenne saddens Sanchez, but at the same time, "it makes me want to try harder."

Delphine Saraficio, who teaches O'odham to children and adults in San Xavier, said she sometimes feels discouraged to see her native language disintegrating.

But then she hears new students such as Preston painstakingly emit the soft, lilting sounds of O'odham in class. It is the affirmation she needs to keep working to save her mother tongue.

● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or