Native Americans Attempt to Save Tribal Languages for the Next Generation ENDANGERED SPEECH

Article excerpt

THERE are 500 ways to say love in the native American language Odawa, but Kenny Pheasant is the only one in his town who can say them all. Not even the elders in his community speak the language fluently. Because language can live only in the people who speak it, Odawa, like many other native tongues in the United States, is endangered.

Some tribes are reintroducing Indian languages to the next generation, recognizing that language is a powerful part of a culture's religion, history, and ritual. But many teachers find that few speakers are left and time is short, Mr. Pheasant says.

In North America, 80 percent of native languages are no longer taught to children, estimates University of Alaska linguist Michael Krauss. Tribes that have 100 speakers as well as those that have only two speakers face language extinction; once the elders are gone so is the language, says Mary Bates, director of the Native California Network in Bolinas, Calif.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is slowly retrieving its language. The group's small reservation lies among blooming cherry orchards between the tribally operated Leelanau Sands Casino and the local yacht club in Peshawbestown, Mich. Pheasant, an Ottawa Indian, has become the tribe's sole language teacher. He says he sometimes will spend eight hours conjugating a single verb. First he recalls the verb's tenses, then he translates their sounds into spellings, and finally he creates verb charts as a visual aid. He says he believes his work is essential and that survival of a language is survival of a people.

Even the Grand Traverse Band elders who live together in a large white compound on the reservation say they don't know Odawa well enough to teach it. Elder Esther Koon says she is grateful for Pheasant's knowledge of the language because she just doesn't know all the grammar. Pheasant says that Odawa, which is 60 percent verbs, has an overwhelming number of rules but also offers great opportunity to find just the right word.

Odawa is not a written language. Pheasant says his ancestors communicated through art and speech, not writing. So there are no books in the library to help him or the children.

WHEN Pheasant moved to Michigan from Canada, where he learned the language as a child, a teacher at the local college asked him to teach a class in Odawa. So many people demanded to be taught that Pheasant had to quit his job at a construction company. He now teaches 150 students a week and is working on a computer program to instruct those who can't come to his classes. His students range from preschoolers to older adults.

Shirley Brown, a Chickasaw Indian and director of the Native American Language Institute in Harrah, Okla. …