Defying the Silence,
Part Two: A Race Against Time
by James May, Indian
11 July 2003
history of American Indian languages in this country, like
general policy toward Indians, has a confused past. In the early
days of the English colonies, there is evidence that many of the
early European immigrants actually learned the Indian languages
of the eastern seaboard. Missionaries later translated the Bible
and other texts into Indian languages, in many cases providing
the only written histories of languages that have long since
through massacres, wars and other means of extermination, Indian
tribes were pushed out beyond the frontier of European
settlement and as further settlers arrived, English was
reinforced with a solid base on the east coast and gradually
spread out from there. Indian languages were derided and thought
of by the European invaders as the inferior utterances of
savages as attempts by well meaning but clueless reformers were
made through boarding schools to rid them of their native
1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, efforts
were finally made by the federal government to save Indian
languages. Title VII funding for bilingual education was applied
to help save endangered and dying Indian languages. The
conservative backlash of the 1980s cut off much of the Title VII
funds. Though the main target of the conservative backlash was
Spanish, another European language imposed on Indians of Latin
America, funding for Indian languages also took a hit because
they received money from the same source.
working to save tribal languages now must rely on a complex
patchwork of funding, which is not the only problem that they
face. Often this funding is done through Administration for
Native Americans (ANA) grants. This kind of funding is known as
"soft money" and often only funds these kinds of
programs for a year or so.
Grant is the director of the Nuumu Yadoha Language Program, a
group that is trying to save the endangered language of the
Bishop Paiute tribe. True to her last name, Grant says that she
had to write quite a few grant proposals for her organization to
obtain money from ANA, and historic preservation grants for the
past few years in order to create a dictionary and grammar book
for the language, which had never before been fully documented.
order to survive the group found a kind of back door funding
through Owens Valley Career Development program. This is a
tribal non-profit organization that receives federal grants and
provides a more steady form of income that is generally marked
for providing preventative programs for youth by providing
constructive activities for them, such as learning a tribal
Nuumu Yadoha Language Program takes its name from the indigenous
word for the Bishop Paiute tribe themselves. The program has
been facing an uphill battle. Many of the tribal language
speakers are elderly and frail and Grant says that her
organization has to work quickly in order to document the
really a race against time," says Grant.
illustrate this point, on the afternoon Grant was interviewed
she was scheduled to meet a group from the Mono Lake tribe,
located just over the mountains from the Bishop Paiute. She says
that when they first started consulting with each other last
year, there were still three speakers of the Mono Lake language.
Sadly, two of them passed away leaving a sole fluent elderly
speaker of their tribal language.
representatives of the Bishop Paiute and Tule River tribes
attended a weeklong workshop sponsored by the University of
California at Riverside to help train teachers of tribal
languages. The purpose was to provide help for tribal elders in
using effective methods of teaching the younger generations.
Mojado, coordinator of Native American Programs at the
University of California Riverside Extension Program and a
Bishop Paiute tribal member said the weeklong program included
workshops of teacher training, curriculum development, lesson
planning and several other topics including teaching language
helped to coordinate the program and is currently using teaching
materials, such as compact discs developed by Grant and her
staff at the Nuumu Yadoha Language Program.
elders have the gift of speaking the language but not the
teaching skills," says Mojado. ‘That’s what we were
trying to provide.
the stops during the busy weeklong program was to visit the
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians where a full-fledged program to
revitalize their language is underway. Pechanga’s program is
fairly unique in that the tribe is footing their own bill, thus
alleviating the need for soft money.
group from the University of California at Riverside went to see
a preschool program that is being taught by linguist Eric
Elliot. Elliot teaches three, three-hour classes to Pechanga
tribal pre-school children every week. Additionally he teaches
adult classes and an after school class for older kids.
DuBois, the director of the Pechanga Cultural Resources Center,
says that the language program just completed its first year and
that the preschoolers will continue next year in kindergarten
with the language program and will also continue with next year’s
batch of preschoolers. He says that tribe hopes the program will
eventually be taught all the way through the eighth grade.
now, we’re just taking it one step at a time," says
DuBois. "We’ll eventually have to evaluate the program
and see how successful it is, but we need much more time before
we can determine that ... we have high hopes for it."
early June the preschoolers performed a play in Luiseno that was
based on a traditional tribal story. DuBois says that using
traditional stories is a fairly common way to help teach the
language to both children and adults. This practice is echoed in
most tribal language revitalization efforts.
language program teacher Elliot, is an "applied"
linguist, which differs from a "theoretical" linguist
in that an applied linguist actually learns to speak the
language rather than just study its grammatical makeup.
Calac-Hyde, one of the last Native speakers of the Luiseno
language taught Elliot the Luiseno language. He says that he
looked Calac-Hyde up in the phone book after reading a book she
published in the 1970s on the Luiseno language and after meeting
with her, turned learning Luiseno into a labor of love.
has since worked with several bands of Luiseno and is also
currently teaching a class in Luiseno at Palomar College’s
satellite campus on the Pauma Reservation, a program that he
says is in danger of being cut due to the deep budget shortfall
well versed in the various Luiseno dialects, of which there are
approximately six, not including the closely related Juaneno
language, spoken by tribes to the north in what is now Orange
try to be very respectful of everyone’s dialect," says
says that he often has to rely on the generosity of tribal
members to volunteer dialectical differences. When asked what
the exact number of Luiseno speakers are today, Elliot says it
is hard to gauge for a couple of reasons.
first is that since Elliot is non-Indian, he says that he has
had to gain a certain measure of trust among tribal members. He
says that given their history in dealing with non-Indians that
he fully understands their reluctance.
second reason is that many tribal members have some knowledge of
the language but are a little unsure of their own fluency. Dr.
Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of
California, Berkeley, one of the foremost experts on California
tribal languages and the author of "Flutes of Fire," a
book detailing California Indian languages, concurs with Elliot
on this point.
elaborates and says that in addition to being made to be ashamed
of their Native languages, many children of now elderly fluent
speakers; people largely in their 50s and 60s; did not learn the
language as well as their parents did and were thus laughed at
for using a broken form of the language.
points out that one of the major problems in Ireland is that the
Gaelic language is only being viewed by younger people as a
school language and not a potential method of spontaneous
says that the only way for a language to survive and stay vital
is to create a comprehensive atmosphere where the language is
spoken. She points to Elliot’s program at Pechanga as a good
example of what to do. The adult and after school language
classes at Pechanga, for example, are designed so that parents
and older siblings will participate in Luiseno conversation with
the young preschoolers.
need to move outside the ‘school language’ idea," says
Hinton. "The language needs to be used in several vital
areas, the most important of which are schools, families and
communities all being on the same page in regard to
and application are not the only problems facing those that are
trying to revitalize California Indian languages. Some of the
problems are of a much more practical nature dealing
particularly with the constructions of the language,
basic problem is that many tribal languages do not have names
for many recent inventions nor for plants and animals from other
places in the world. Though there were borrowings from other
languages early on, most of these words were taken when a
significant number of speakers still used the language as daily
discourse and were thus naturalized.
tribes would often roughly translate terms from other languages
by use native words for new concepts, such as the Bishop Paiute
term for eyeglasses, which is "Wihi Busi" or metal
Elliot and Grant say one of the problems is the question of
whether to borrow a word from English, or some other source, or
whether to coin a term by using words already in the tribal
language’s vocabulary. They say that they try to be cautious
about routinely incorporating English words and Elliot says that
he tries to let the tribal members decide the question for
example, Elliot says that in his afterschool class the children
wanted to know how to say marten, a small mammal not indigenous
to California, in Luiseno. He says he left it up to the
students, who wanted to coin a term based on the words for
"tree" and "weasel" for the animal.
general, we have to incorporate vocabulary on a case-by-case
basis," says Grant.
(Continued in Part
Part 1: Special
UN Report: Speaking in Tongues, The Midnight Hour
Country Today for the rest of this series of interviews.
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of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html