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Elder says reconnection with native tongue could help bring tribal renaissance

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.casperstartribune.net/articles/2008/04/11/news/wyoming/8d43f625a 1e184e28725742700819958.txt Elder says reconnection with native tongue could help
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 14, 2008
      http://www.casperstartribune.net/articles/2008/04/11/news/wyoming/8d43f625a
      1e184e28725742700819958.txt

      Elder says reconnection with native tongue could help bring tribal
      renaissance

      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
      digital-audio record.

      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
      native tongue.

      "We used to get spanked for talking Indian," Haukaas said.

      Nonetheless, she was strong-willed, and she never let go of her
      grandparents' language.

      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
      Shoshone.

      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,
      Haukaas said.

      "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
      people.

      "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
      said.

      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."
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