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Language of the elders

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.eastoregonian.info/main.asp?SectionID=13&SubSectionID=48&Article ID=71753 Sunday, January 13, 2008 Language of the elders Preserving the sounds and
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2008

      Sunday, January 13, 2008

      Language of the elders
      Preserving the sounds and identity of their American Indian culture

      By Flynn Espe
      The East Oregonian

      Sunday, January 13, 2008

      As in any typical high school classroom, the level of engagement varied
      from student to student Tuesday morning in the Umatilla language class at
      Nixyáawii Community School.

      In reviewing Umatilla vocabulary for articles of clothing, teacher
      Tawtaliksh (English name Fred Hill, Sr.) told several amusing stories
      behind the meaning of the words, being careful to clarify the language's
      precise sounds. With the slightest of change in vowel pronunciation, he
      demonstrated, the word for sleep would turn into the word for drink.

      While some peers chatted away in various corners of the room, senior Randy
      Robinson, now in his third year of learning the language, sat front and
      center taking down notes.

      "I kind of try to focus on myself," Robinson said. "I'm starting to
      understand more of what Fred says when he starts speaking."

      In another classroom on campus, a different group of students reviewed the
      answers to a test on the Walla Walla tribal language, while a third
      classroom of students spent the morning studying pronouns of the Nez Perce
      language. Sitting in on the latter session, two elder Nez Perce speakers
      listened to make sure their apprentice teacher taught the proper

      A new effort

      While the three American Indian dialects once flourished across the region
      as a backbone of native culture, very few fluent speakers - who learned the
      languages orally, often through grandparents - remain living.

      Beginning in 1996, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian
      Reservation adopted an ambitious language program to preserve the old
      tongues from becoming extinct.

      Each weekday, a small selection of tribal elders representing all three
      languages gathers informally to socialize and help one another re-extract
      the old words and phrases from their memories. While the group started with
      about nine elders, two have since died.

      With the help of descriptive linguist Noel Rude, Ph.D., the tribes have
      begun to amass a collection of recorded and phonetically written texts of
      the native dialects, transcribed interviews with the present tribal elders.
      From those, Rude has continued to expand the dictionaries and figure out
      the language grammars.

      While that work continues, the tribes have begun to build curriculum to
      teach the languages, now foreign, to the newest generation.

      At Nixyáawii, often depending on their blood lineage, students choose to
      study either Umatilla, Walla Walla or what the tribes refer to as
      Cayuse-Nez Perce, a slightly modified version of the Nez Perce language the
      Cayuse people began to speak after being nearly wiped out from war and
      disease in the 1800s. As the true Cayuse language no longer exists, tribal
      members attached the name to the Nez Perce as an identifier of the people
      who lived on through intermarriage.

      Reclaiming what was lost

      "When the Catholic priests came and they started the boarding schools, they
      punished the young people for speaking Indian. And also the United States
      government schools punished the youngsters severely," said elder Shaw'
      shwíinan' may (Kathleen Gordon), who helps pass on the Cayuse-Nez Perce
      language. "It was beaten out of us really. So our grandmas and our parents
      feared for us being punished and beaten."

      For many, such painful history contributed to long-lasting feelings of

      "There was a lot of resistance at one time to have the language written
      down," said Kakiinash (Thomas MorningOwl), original language program
      director, explaining the old sentiment of some elders. " 'Why do you write
      down the language? The white man has stolen our identity. They've stolen
      our land.' "

      It's a viewpoint MorningOwl said has begun to fall by the wayside.

      "If I have the language, as I do, and I don't do anything to pass it on to
      my kids and leave a legacy of the written word behind, and I go to my grave
      ... I steal it from everybody," MorningOwl said.

      As the program now operates, a handful of elders from each language work
      independently to teach one or two adult apprentices, who in turn pass on
      the language to the high school students. Students study the languages
      twice a week.

      The tribes also work the language into their HeadStart program and teach a
      group of students weekly at Pendleton's Washington Elementary.

      Language barriers

      It is by no means an easy task. Aside from the different grammar and
      vocabulary, each of the three native tongues incorporates phonetic sounds
      not used in the English language.

      "English is kind of the upper limit for vowel sounds, huge numbers of
      vowels," Rude said. "And these (American Indian) languages are really rich
      in consonant sounds."

      Those sounds can incorporate everything from subtle pops at the front of
      the mouth to guttural throat pronunciations.

      "One of the things that always comes to my mind is, 'Are the people here
      really ready to start pronouncing the words how they're supposed to be
      pronounced?' " program supervisor Tîsyawak (Mildred Quaempts) said. "If
      they really want this language to go out, they have to be patient, and they
      have to be willing and committed."

      A link to creation

      For Hill, it also is a matter of immersing the young people in
      storytelling, an important teaching vehicle by which past generations
      learned to imitate the sounds of language not easily captured on paper.

      "There were life lessons, and as the stories were told you learned to
      become a listener. And one of those ways you indicated you were listening
      was by begetting sounds as you listened," he said, demonstrating a few
      vowel hums. "There are sounds that are evoked by the spirit of the story."

      And many tribal members believe those sounds have roots as deep as
      creation, a message Gordon imparts to all of her students.

      "These were sacred gifts to us from our creator that we were to speak for a
      lifetime. But they were taken from us and we need to revive them, because
      it is our true identity," Gordon said. "Like every bird has a song, their
      own unique song and sound - the dogs, the cats - everything has their own
      sound and this is our unique sound the creator gave to us."

      In an increasingly English-saturated world, local languages like the
      Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce, may never again exist in the same pure
      capacity as the past.

      "It's very hard to maintain a minority language in the world anywhere
      today," Rude said. "That's what we're trying to do here."

      Nevertheless, teachers at Nixyáawii may find encouragement from students
      like Robinson, who are making more noticeable efforts to listen.

      "I'm hoping to come back next year as an apprentice," he said. "I would
      like to keep up with the language, so I don't lose it over time."
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