Tribes Strive to Save Native Tongues

Article excerpt

Grass-roots efforts to preserve and teach youngsters native languages are intensifying around the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia as about 40 indigenous tongues are in danger of disappearing within the next decade.

Native leaders are compiling dictionaries, drafting lesson plans, and scrambling to save what scraps of language they can before the last of the fluent elders dies. In the case of Kiksht, a language spoken for centuries along Oregon's Columbia River, there are two remaining speakers and neither can remember the words for "yawn" or "brown."

"It's funny, but it's stuff we still need to know," says Radine "Deanie" Johnson, a former forklift operator spearheading efforts to preserve her grandmother's language on this hardscrabble reservation in central Oregon. "I think if we didn't have our languages, our customs, traditions, that we wouldn't be considered native Americans."

Many of these languages such as Skagit, Ichishkiin, or northern Haida still have dozens of fluent native speakers, but nearly all of them are middle-aged or older.

Attempts to record these languages vary, but most are underfunded. A few have the services of a dedicated linguist; others are more ad hoc. So-called "revitalization" programs may be successful at passing on a few traditional phrases, stories, or dances. But most attempts to bring a language back into common usage after the majority of speakers have reached middle age have failed.

Hebrew, taught by Zionist settlers in Palestine and which later became the official language of Israel, is the most notable exception. Today there are about 7 million speakers. New Zealand has spent millions of dollars promoting Maori, teaching it in schools, and in 1987 recognizing it as the third official language. But the number of fluent Maori speakers there has dropped by 10,000 - about 17 percent - over the past 10 years and some 80 percent of them are more than 35 years old.

"A language dies when you don't have children picking it up in the home," says Scott DeLancey, a University of Oregon linguist.

Here in America's Northwest, there are signs policymakers are beginning to take some notice. Last May, the Oregon State Legislature passed a resolution honoring Ms. Johnson's grandmother, Gladys Thompson, for her efforts to teach Kiksht and "her dedication to the preservation of Indian ways."

In 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded $5 million to support efforts to digitally record more than 60 endangered languages around the world. Included was $263,000 to document stories and conversations in Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, spoken along the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska and islands off British Columbia.

"At least it's a validation of the implications of what is to be lost," says Patricia Shaw, director of the First Nations Languages Program in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Tribe members here in Warm Springs say preserving what they can of Kiksht, also known as Wasco, is critical to maintaining their distinctiveness as a people.

"Lose the language, lose distinct identity," says George Aguilar, the tribe's unofficial historian, who is half-Filipino but was raised by his Kiksht grandmother. …