Posts Tagged ‘Language preservation’

Photo by Vincent Schilling

Photo by Vincent Schilling

It was a week full of language immersion for the Buffalo Post. (My story on the new Salish language dictionary comes out Monday on Missoulian.com) This quote from Carole Ross, Mohawk language instructor at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation caught my eye. Really wise words: “Our language is a gift from our Creator, if we don’t learn it. We cannot hear the voices of our ancestors.”
Read the full story about embracing technology to teach Native languages at Indian Country Today.

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Charles Spotted Thunder speaks Lakota and feels that it is important for his teenage daughter Tiana Spotted Thunder, a student at Red Cloud Indian School, to learn about her native language and culture. (Kristina Barker/Rapid City Journal)

Tina Merdanian, director of institutional relations at Red Cloud Indian School, feels that being Lakota and knowing your native language go hand-in-hand and that the language is at the heart of being a Lakota person. (Kristina Barker/Rapid City Journal)


Only between 5 percent to 15 percent of enrolled members of the Oglala Lakota Tribe are fluent speakers of their native language, and most of those are older than 50. It’s an old story in Indian Country.

In this story in the Rapid City Journal, Kayla Gahagan tells of a nonprofit group on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation called Oceti Wakan that is trying to preserve the language.

“A culture is kept by the language in the deepest sense,” says Cindy Catch, director of the Oceti Wakan. “It formulates how one sees the world.”

Catch says it’s a hopeful sign that 41 percent of almost 9,000 households surveyed in 2007 reported having one Lakota speaker.

Gahagan talks to numerous elders who see language as a way to preserve culture and counter the pernicious influence of drugs, alcoholism and violence among the tribe’s young people:

Charles Spotted Thunder speaks Lakota and feels that it is important for his teenage daughter Tiana Spotted Thunder, a student at Red Cloud Indian School, to learn about her native language and culture. (Kristina Barker/Rapid City Journal)

Charles Spotted Thunder speaks Lakota and feels that it is important for his teenage daughter Tiana Spotted Thunder, a student at Red Cloud Indian School, to learn about her native language and culture. (Kristina Barker/Rapid City Journal)

    Mildred Alkrie, a Manderson elder who speaks fluent Lakota, talks about the reservation with pride and disdain.

    “I hit that Wounded Knee hill and I’m home, free at last,” she said. “We look out for each other.”

    It’s home, and it’s hard.

    “It’s paradise, with no civilization, no laws,” she says, tossing a thick black braid of hair behind her shoulder.

    Alkrie speaks out on issues of tribal corruption, drugs and alcohol, and works to feed poverty-stricken elderly and the homeless. People feel torn, she said.

    “They want to be Indian, but they don’t want to speak the language,” she said.

The link to the story will also lead you to a video of Lakota words.

Gwen Florio

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Group photograph of Indians on the Shinnecock Reservation, eastern Long Island, circa 1930 (National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives)

Group photograph of Indians on the Shinnecock Reservation, eastern Long Island, circa 1930 (National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives)

Do these words mean anything to you? Cws. cotokr.

Unfortunately, the words — meaning, respectively, “father” and “to stand” — aren’t recognizable to present-day members of the Unkechaug Tribe, either. That’s because neither the language of the Unkechaug nor the Shinnecock, both of whom live on Long Island, has been spoken in more than two centuries.

Now Stony Brook university on Long Island is helping the tribes to revive their lost languages, according to this story by Patricia Cohen in today’s New York Times.

They’re relying on sources as diverse as a vocabulary list drawn up by Thomas Jefferson when he visited New York in 1731 and interviewed three elderly women — the source of the two words above. The idea is to help tribal members become proficient in their own languages:

    Chief Harry Wallace, the elected leader of the Unkechaug Nation, said that for tribal members, knowing the language is an integral part of understanding their own culture, past and present.

    “When our children study their own language and culture, they perform better academically,” he said. “They have a core foundation to rely on.”

    The Long Island effort is part of a wave of language reclamation projects undertaken by American Indians in recent years. For many tribes language is a cultural glue that holds a community together, linking generations and preserving a heritage and values. Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsors language preservation programs, has called language “the DNA of a culture.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, the Breath of Life program has seen people whose heritage includes 25 languages in its workshops. The people who created that program are looking to start a similar one in Washington, D.C. And at the Myaamia Project that’s a joint effort between the Miami Tribe and Miami University in Ohio, director Daryl Baldwin has helped his children become fluent.

That’s really important. As Cohen reports:

    Of the more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in the United States, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. This nonprofit group estimates that without restoration efforts, no more than 20 will still be spoken in 2050.

Gwen Florio

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Jason Joe, 8, a second grader, works on his Navajo language lesson at Ruth N. Bond Elementary in Kirtland, N.M. on Tuesday, March 30, 2010. One hundred and fifty students are already enrolled in Navajo bilingual classes, and two teachers, one certified with the state of New Mexico and the other certified with the tribe, are scrambling to keep up with the demand. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Rebecca Craig)

Jason Joe, 8, a second grader, works on his Navajo language lesson at Ruth N. Bond Elementary in Kirtland, N.M. on Tuesday, March 30, 2010. One hundred and fifty students are already enrolled in Navajo bilingual classes, and two teachers, one certified with the state of New Mexico and the other certified with the tribe, are scrambling to keep up with the demand. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Rebecca Craig)


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It’s a safe bet that the students at the Ruth N. Bond Elementary School in Kirtland, N.M., know a whole lot more Navajo than ya’at’eeh, the word for hello.

As Alysa Landry of the Farmington, N.M., Daily Times writes here, the school has 150 students enrolled in its Navajo bilingual classes, and eight more on a waiting list. That works out to nearly all of the students in kindergarten through third grade.

Bond is the only school with a waiting list for Navajo in the Central Consolidated School District, which covers 3,000 square miles and has a 90 percent Navajo student population, Landry reports.

“Really the only way we can enroll more students is if other students transfer out of the school or their parents pull them out of bilingual classes,” said Veta Glover, who is certified by the state to teach bilingual education. “I hate to turn kids away.”

The school is looking for more people to teach Navajo.

Carol Thomas, an assistant in the Dine Education Center in Window Rock, Ariz., says the Native American Language Culture Certification program allows tribally certified teachers to also receive state teaching certificates.

The need is urgent, says Glover. “From kindergarten through third grade, we learn everything: how to introduce yourself, the colors, the numbers, clans, the culture. If Navajo isn’t being spoken at home, they need to be here to be exposed to it. That’s what I really want for them.”

Gwen Florio

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Rosetta Stone, the company that advertises whose ads for language lessons run in upscale publications, is helping Louisiana’s Chitimacha Tribe -which lost its last native speaker in 1940 – revive its language.

As National Public Radio’s Larry Abramson reports here, the company is helping the tribe develop software that can be used to interest younger members in learning the language.

The tribe consists of about 1,000 people living on a bayou south of Lafayette, La.

“Their language has been a sleeping language for about 60 years,” Marion Bittinger, manager of the endangered language program at Rosetta Stone, tells Abramson.

Rosetta Stone’s work with other tribes has involved elders. The fact that the Chitimacha tribe’s last fluent speaker died 70 years ago makes the project “very challenging … but also very inspiring,” Bittinger says:

    The Chitimacha did have hundreds of hours of scratchy recordings on wax cylinders, along with extensive notes from linguist Morris Swadesh, who recorded Chitimacha Chief Ben Paul before the chief’s death in 1934.

    Over the past decade, the tribe has been using those bits and pieces to build a curriculum, and start teaching Chitimacha to schoolchildren.

    “It helps preserve cultural identity,” says Kimberly Walden, cultural director of the tribe. “And it really is like a missing piece. Those of us who grew up without a language, it was something we always dreamed of.”

Rosetta Stone also is working on software for other tribes, such as the Navajo, who still have many fluent speakers but are watching their numbers dwindle.


Gwen Florio

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Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois, grew up hearing her grandparents’ stories and those of other Ojibwe tribal elders. But she realized, as she grew older, that crucial meaning was getting lost in translation, according to this Chicago Tribune column by Dawn Turner Trice.

    Dorene Wiese

    Dorene Wiese

    “But language is the thread that keeps culture together,” said Wiese. “Language is woven into our brains and psyches and memories. Today when we say the word “medicine” in English, we think Walgreens. But in Ojibwe, the word is “midewin” (pronounced ma-DAY-win), meaning ‘from the earth.’ It’s the healing that takes place directly from mother earth.

    “That seems like a minor detail, a definition of a word, but when you look at how it means that medicine isn’t just something from a pill or a bottle but from a cornucopia of plants from the Creator, it makes a difference in the way you see it, feel it and remember it.”

Wiese is also part of a group that is trying to bring an American Indian Charter School to the Chicago pubic schools, that would also feature language instruction.

As she tells Trice. “I wanted to learn how to pray in Ojibwe. I wanted to learn how to tell our stories in Ojibwe. That’s the only way we can be whole again as a native people.”

Gwen Florio

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