Elder says reconnection with native tongue could help bring tribal renaissance
Elder says reconnection with native tongue could help bring tribal
By CHRIS MERRILL
Star-Tribune staff writer
Friday, April 11, 2008 12:13 PM MDT
FORT WASHAKIE -- Beatrice Haukaas's great-grandmother was a sort of
medicine woman who specialized in eye surgeries.
Everyone on the reservation who had cataracts would come to her, Haukaas
said, and her great-grandmother would scrape their eyes clear with a looped
blade of grass.
As a girl in the 1940s, Haukaas would help her grandmother with the
cataract removals by sitting on the patients' legs to keep them still.
Because she was raised by her grandparents, Haukaas grew up speaking the
Shoshone language, and she witnessed some traditional Shoshone medicine,
prayer and customs.
It is this experience with her language and culture that has made Haukaas
an invaluable contributor to Reba Teran's ongoing Eastern Shoshone
dictionary project, in which she is trying to document, record and preserve
the tribe's language before fluent speakers pass on.
Off and on for more than five years, Haukaas has been sitting, with fellow
elder Manfred Guina Sr. -- in a cramped storage-closet-cum-recording
studio, filled with buffalo robes and boxes -- painstakingly recording more
than 14,000 Shoshone words and phrases for Teran's written and
Teran, who is Haukaas's younger sister by 20 years, said a thorough
documentation of the language and its pronunciation would not have been
possible without her older sister's help.
Haukaas didn't begin to learn English, she said, until she went to the
Shoshone Episcopal Mission School, where she faced punishment for using her
"We used to get spanked for talking Indian," Haukaas said.
Nonetheless, she was strong-willed, and she never let go of her
As an adult, Haukaas worked for 28 years as a community health
representative, where part of her job was to do home visits to check on the
elders. She would speak to them in Shoshone because they preferred it, and
they would tell her more that way.
Often the elders would not tell white doctors or nurses if they were having
problems, but they would tell Haukaas when they were alone, speaking
Because the Eastern Shoshone language is so descriptive, and it lends
itself to an ever-escalating, riffing style of comedy, when she gets
together with other Shoshone women it usually turns into a giggle-fest,
"When you get a bunch of ladies together talking our language, it's real
comical," she said.
But Shoshone also tends to be more affecting, in general: The jokes are
funnier, the rebukes are more cutting, and the sad stories are more painful
to hear, Teran said.
Teran, who said she also feels greater emotion speaking Shoshone than she
does English, put it this way: "Your heart speaks a lot in Shoshone."
At home in her house recently on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Haukaas
sat at her kitchen table with hundreds of pictures of family members all
around her -- some of them hanging on the walls, some snapshots lining the
mirrors, and some framed portraits standing on nearby shelves.
Some of the pictures are old sepias and black-and-whites, but most are new
and colorful, filled with children and their parents in current-day dress.
When she talked about her family, and her family's history, her face
brightened with adoration, and her eyes sometimes welled up with tears.
Both Haukaas and Teran say the weight of history and alcohol has nearly
destroyed the Eastern Shoshone culture. But both have hopes that a
revitalization of the language will bring about a renaissance for the
"I had eight brothers, and I lost six to alcohol, one way or another,"
Haukaas said. "They all died before the age of 30."
In one generation, Haukaas watched a once proud people be nearly destroyed
by alcohol, she said, as if somebody flipped a switch the year alcohol
became legal for Indians.
And although things have gotten better on that front, the younger
generations are still dealing with the fallout of all the abuse and the
broken families brought on by the sudden plague of alcoholism, Haukaas
Teran said she believes a reconnection to the language could help some
people to heal.
"Hopefully with my sister's, Manfred's and Roberta's work, and by getting
our language out to the children, they'll find some pride," Teran said.
Haukaas said she would like to see more interest among the young people in
tribal traditions, such as Indian dance. And she hopes that as the children
learn their language more in school, they'll find the confidence to use it.
"A lot of kids are afraid to talk Shoshone because they're afraid to say it
wrong," Haukaas said. "They don't need to be afraid."