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
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. …