The Arizona Republic
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/139279
By Christine L. Romero
PHOENIX — The boxes were tucked away when the government found Curtis Cook on the Internet.
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 seven Zuni elders.
In those boxes sat years of Cook's life and work. It was the origin 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 had been to create a Zuni version of the Bible, but he quickly realized the language didn't have a written form.
The Goodyear resident 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 would 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 Zunis.
"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 his work.
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 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 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 teachings.
The collection will include those tapes, transcriptions, learning guides and some Zuni publications.
Cook, 67, 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 numbering 10,000 people.
Language experts say there likely are pockets of the world where some languages exist only orally, even today.
Other oral traditions have morphed into written languages in a similar missionary fashion to Cook's intent to create a Zuni version of the Bible, experts say.
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 memories alive."
Without a written documentation, the Zuni oral tradition could have been lost, Shankar said.
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 future generations."
Cook meticulously made language records, including transcribing traditional stories passed down through the generations. He used the International Phonetic Alphabet, a commonly accepted series of symbols among linguists, to capture the Zuni language.
"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."