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
"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
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
"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. …