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A Matter of Survival

A national movement is afoot to revitalize the hundreds of native languages that once flourished across North America and the Hawaiian islands.

By Peter Eichstaedt

Laramie, Wyo.

To the average ear, the words and sounds of Arapaho are from another world. But to Felicia Antelope, they’re the sounds of home. Antelope is a student at the University of Wyoming and an Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation in the central part of the state. She is one of a dozen students in Wayne C’Hair’s twice-weekly Arapaho language class.

Although Antelope, 35, grew up speaking her native language at home, she quickly forgot it after her elementary school teachers told her she had a problem.

“I was told I had a speech impediment,” she says. “But I don’t. I was speaking what they call ‘lazy English,’” the basic English she heard on the reservation. As a result, “they stuck me in a speech class.”

With her self-esteem damaged and her parents disappointed, the family stopped speaking Arapaho so she wouldn’t be held back a grade.

Antelope’s experience typifies that of American Indians — from upstate New York to the Hawaiian Islands — who have lost not only their native language but also their unique culture. But like thousands of other American Indians, she is recapturing her cultural and linguistic heritage.

“It gives me more of an understanding of my culture,” she says of the Arapaho class.

It also has rekindled interest in the language among her family and friends, who also had all but forgotten the language.

“I got a really good reaction,” Antelope says, about trying out words and phrases on her parents and grandparents. “They smile, but they will correct me in a heart beat. They know they have to speak slowly to me, but at least I try.”

Antelope and C’Hair are part of a national movement to revitalize the hundreds of native languages that once flourished in the continental United States and Hawaii.

Experts say that because the majority of native language speakers are passing away, almost all of these languages could be gone by 2050.

While universities have been a reservoir for the study and research of native languages, much of the current movement revolves around the immersion programs now available in many native schools and communities. The idea behind the schools is to teach native language to children at an early age so that it is incorporated into their daily speech and — where feasible — their school instruction.

Bills that would fund these schools and programs are being considered by the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives, for example, passed House Bill 4766, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Heather A. Wilson, R-N.M., in September.

Reclaiming A Cultural Identity
To grow and flourish, these programs require native speakers who are also skilled language instructors. “In almost all of these programs, there is a university involved,” says Dr. David Beaulieu, director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University.

To succeed, “you have to have partners and research scholars who are connected into this overall effort,” he says.

The sentiment is echoed by Dr. Christine Sims, an assistant professor in the department of language literacy and sociocultural studies with the University of New Mexico’s College of Education.

“One of the things that we face right now is that when these languages aren’t learned, everything that is bound together through language is lost,” she says.

“It’s not just the fact that we’re losing languages, but the survival of cultures is at issue,” says the native of Acoma Pueblo, a still-inhabited American Indian town dating back to the ninth century A.D. “In the Southwest, native language is still used for every aspect of tribal life. Our social networks and cultural systems are tied together through kinship, and language is part of that kinship.” 

The resurgence of interest in native languages comes none too soon, says Sims.

“The idea that we have to pay conscious attention now to teaching languages is something new to many tribal communities. Part of what we can and have been doing at the university is to help tribal communities with training and technical expertise in a number of areas to support these initiatives,” she says. “We do training workshops for tribal communities in language program planning, and we train native speakers from these communities to teach language.”

One of the nation’s oldest and most successful immersion schools is the Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘O Anuenue — or Rainbow Immersion School — in Honolulu.

Vice Principal VerlieAnn Malina-Wright says Hawaiians feared the loss of their language and consulted with the Maori people of New Zealand about ways to revive it.

That cooperation resulted in families and friends gathering at home to teach the Hawaiian language to young children. The movement grew and resulted in Ke Kula Kaiapuni, a private school where Hawaiian is the language of instruction and English is taught as a subject.

Similar schools have been established elsewhere, such as the Akwesasne Freedom School in Rooseveltown, N.Y., which teaches the Mohawk language; and the Piegan Institute in Browning, Mont., an immersion school where children learn the Blackfoot language.

Results at Ke Kula Kaiapuni have been impressive, says Malina-Wright. The students exceed state and national academic standards and maintain fluency in both English and Hawaiian.

“There was a big concern for the survival of the language,” says Kealohamakua Wengler, a school counselor and football coach.

Wengler’s four children attend the school. “They’re proud of it,” he says of their ability to speak fluent Hawaiian. “The life of the people is within the language. When the language dies, so do the people, because along with it go all your stories and history.”

Deanie Lehana, 49, a native Hawaiian and parent of four Ke Kula Kaiapuni students, says she will never forget being scolded by a stranger for not knowing Hawaiian.

“I was 19 when an elderly Hawaiian man began to talk to me and I had no clue what he was saying,” she recalls. “He said, ‘How can you be Hawaiian if you don’t speak the language?’”

Personal and cultural identity is also why Toni L. Tsatoke is studying her native language of Kiowa as a graduate student in education at the University of Oklahoma.

“I grew up with my maternal grandmother, so I was exposed to the [Kiowa] language as a child,” she says.

But when Tsatoke moved away and continued to use Kiowa in her daily speech, “It didn’t occur to me that everyone didn’t understand it,” she says. “We were taught that English is the superior language.”

The University of Oklahoma is one of the few places where the Kiowa language is still taught.

“It’s a privilege to be able to take it at this point,” Tsatoke says. “We are a relatively small tribe. We have very few native speakers. I live one hour from our community. I attend tribal functions … and now I’m able to pick out things in conversation. I can comprehend a lot more than before.”

“It’s important for me because it’s a large part of our cultural identity,” she says. “From language come songs and stories and things that you can’t express in English.”

Preservation of native languages can also be an issue of national defense, Tsatoke notes.

Navajo soldiers known as the Navajo Code Talkers used their language to transmit critical information during the Pacific Campaign of World War II. With no previous exposure to Navajo, the Japanese were unable to decipher the language.

Other native languages, including Kiowa, were also used for coded transmissions during the war, and Tsatoke says that if these languages are lost so is a valuable national resource.

Preservation of native languages is a communitywide effort, argues Ryan Wilson, president of the National Indian Education Association.

“[Language] is intrinsic to our sovereignty and way of living. Cultural continuity cannot exist without it,” he says. “The essential elements of wellness, spirituality and culture are contingent on our ability to speak our language. They will not happen without a concerted effort in collaboration with our school universities.

“The role of universities should be of augmenting and assisting,” as opposed to teaching, he says, because adults have a much more difficult time achieving fluency in a language than children. “The other role [of universities] is the certifying of cultural and language experts to stock the schools and provide technical assistance.”

At the University of Wyoming, Arapaho instructor Wayne C’Hair says he was recruited from the Wind River Reservation because he was one of the few fluent speakers who could also teach the language. It has become his life’s work. When not at the university, C’Hair teaches classes at the St. Steven’s Indian School and at the Wind River Tribal College, both on the Wind River Reservation.

Teaching Arapaho has required the creation of a new alphabet because, as C’Hair says, “We have sounds that English does not have.

“The language is so rich. Hearing Arapaho is like watching color TV. Listening to English is like watching black and white,” he says.

For example, he says, the Arapaho word for automobile is translated as “wagon that goes without horses.”  

Native languages should be cherished and encouraged as a means to preserve social and cultural diversity, C’Hair says. “We have our own culture and we do things in a certain way. Without a language, you can’t have a culture.”

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