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Preservationists Save Native American Languages - 2002-05-15

Indigenous languages and the cultures they're a part of are facing a crisis across the United States. According to the Indigenous Language Institute, in the southwestern state of New Mexico, only 175 of the estimated 300 original American Indian languages are still spoken today.

Of those, most speakers are middle-aged adults or tribal elders. The Institute reports that few languages are spoken widely by native children and that without significant support toward preservation, only 20 Indigenous American languages will survive the next 60 years.

When the federal government forced American Indians onto reservations in the late 1800s, it passed a variety of laws aimed at destroying Native cultures. Perhaps the most devastating was the requirement that all Indian children attend government, and later Christian, boarding schools. Here students were dressed in military uniforms, had their traditional long hair cut short and were taught all that was expected to make them successful in a non-Indian world.

One of the rules most stringently enforced at boarding schools right up to the latter part of the 20th century was the banning of all indigenous languages.

Lakota elder Ivan Star attended the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1955 to 1965. "They never allowed us to speak Lakota," he said, "and that was the only language I knew at the time. I guess, I always felt like they tried to take that out of us, take that Indian-ness out of us in a forceful manner a brutal manner. I remember being punished sometimes... being swatted with a very thick razor strap. It was about three or four inches wide and it was cut at one end and it had a metal D-ring at the other end of it. And that's what they used on me, just for speaking Lakota."

More than a century of "taking the Indian out of the child" resulted in several generations of American Indians who couldn't speak or understand their language. For most tribes, including the Lakota, language is more than a collection of spoken words; it's the very essence of their culture.

Indian education advocate Ruth Yellow Hawk recently sponsored a language contest, in which students had to research the history of one Indigenous word. She says that without their language, American Indians can lose their direction in life. "It's so important," she said, "because a lot of people talk about family values, you know, and things like that. And I think that for so many of us that loss of language is truly - equates to loss of identity, loss of instructions."

Like many Lakota speakers, Dolly Red Elk learned the language from her grandmother. As a language instructor at Oglala Lakota College, in the western state of South Dakota, she says she does her best to teach her students the history behind the words that her grandmother taught her.

But Ms. Red Elk says it's more essential right now to give her students the basics. " order to keep the language going. Then I always tell the students, you learn this and as years go on you'll be able to learn the words that we spoke a long time ago with Grandma."

Many young Indians in South Dakota say they're sorry they didn't have the opportunity to learn Lakota years ago. One said, "I think it's a beautiful language and I wished I would've learned it when I was young. Growing up I would hear people talk and stuff, but I never, never really learned the language itself."

Another said, "I wish it [Lakota] was available when I was in high school. In high school we were required to take two years of foreign language, meaning other than English. But our own language wasn't offered to us, so I took two years of Spanish in high school."

Because there's much more to the Lakota language than just words, tribal member Larry Swalley has produced a CD that combines the language with historical information about the culture. He said, "The language, the whole culture of the Lakota, comes from the song of our heartbeat. It's not something that can quickly be put into words. It's a feeling, it's a prayer, it's a thought, it's an emotion - all of these things are in the language." Mr. Swalley said he hopes the high-tech approach to preserving his language will appeal to Lakota youth.

But many language preservationists say the best way to ensure that future generations can speak Lakota and other native tongues is through "language immersion schools."

Darrell Kipp runs such a school - the Piegan Institute, on the Blackfeet Reservation in the western state of Montana. "Unless you teach children, and they become fluent speakers," he said, "most languages cannot survive. A language cannot be adequately recorded on a CD-ROM or technology that a lot of people think is adequate. You really want the language to thrive in a dynamic way, and to grow, and this has to be done through the actions of children as they expand and bring dynamics to the language."

Mr. Kipp said the Piegan Institute, now in its fifteenth year of operation, is making strides toward reviving the Blackfeet language. He gives a good deal of the credit for that success to an immersion school in Hawaii.

The Aha Punana Leo was founded in 1985, after a survey showed that only 30 Hawaiian students spoke their Native language. As on the U.S. mainland, the federal government had banned the Hawaiian language from the school system.

Spokesperson Luahiwa Namahoe said things are different now. "When the children come into our school system," he said, "English is forbidden. So they are immersed in Hawaiian. They are taught to play and fight and brush their teeth and eat their meals and go in the playground and cut and color and glue and get dirty - they do it all through the medium of Hawaiian. It takes them about three months to become fluent in Hawaiian, and that's because they're spending 30 hours to 40 hours per week in Hawaiian. Their English is not compromised, because English is all around us."

Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye introduced a bill last year to provide financial support for Native American Language Survival schools. But former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller says the only way Native languages will be preserved is through the efforts of Indian people, themselves. Ms. Mankiller said, "It doesn't do any good to sit around wringing your hands and complaining about it. There are models out there that people can look at and then get to work in their own communities to help maintain and preserve their language."

Whether through traditional teaching methods, immersion schools or the technology of CDs, the goal is to keep America's native languages alive.

Ultimately, meeting that goal will depend on indigenous people themselves. As Dolly Red Elk points out, even when she was forbidden to speak Lakota at her boarding school, her desire to maintain her identity gave her the strength to fight against the system and find a way to preserve her language for herself, and now, for her students.

Ms. Red Elk said, "I can proudly say I kept the language in me and I kept my culture. So, I am Lakota. I can say that and be proud to say it."