Language of the elders
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.
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."