Skip to main content

Defying the Silence: Part Three of Three

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Although several tribes in California have at least a few tribal members involved in language revitalization, they often face an uphill battle.

There are many people who do not see the value in preserving languages. Dr. Laura Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley says that she was so upset by a recent commentary in the New York Times that she says ridiculed the idea of language preservation. However, indifference to the plight of disappearing languages is not limited to members of the east coast establishment.

Hinton says that in some cases, interested tribal members face a hard sell with their own tribal councils, who are indifferent about the fate of their ancestral languages and more concerned with other priorities such as getting health care and other community funding. She had hoped with the advent of large-scale Indian gaming that tribes would dedicate more resources to language preservation.

However, she says that most tribes are still mired in construction debt for their casinos and have not, at least as of yet been able to fund language programs.

One of those dedicated tribal members is Nancy Steele, a member of the Karuk tribe and a self-taught speaker of her ancestral language.

Steele, along with Hinton, is a founder of the Master Apprentice Program, in which tribal members are paired with elders who help them learn to speak the language. Steele points out that the Master Apprentice Program is designed to provide language in an actual environment.

"The Master Apprentice program is designed to bridge the gap between an elder speaker and a learner, it's like using a key to unlock a door," says Steele.

Steele began learning Karuk 28 years ago, though she says that it was not until she got involved with the Master Apprentice Program in the mid-1990s that she could fully learn the language.

Now Steele says there is a dedicated core group, numbering about a dozen or so individuals, who speak the language with some fluency and an additional 45 people who are semi-fluent.

Stressing the importance of putting resources behind any language rejuvenation project, Steele points to the case of the neighboring Yurok tribe on California's north coast. She says that the Yuroks have approximately 10 - 20 people involved in the Master Apprentice Program at any given time. She credits the Yuroks success with their tribal council, who according to Steele, focus most of their education budget on revitalizing their language.

In just a little more than the past decade, the federal government has made some effort to preserve American Indian and other indigenous languages. The Native American Languages Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and given some funding through an amendment a few years later.

Currently, there is an amendment to the Act working its way through Congress that seeks to provide support for American Indians and other indigenous language "survival" schools. Sen. Daniel Inoyue, D-Hawaii, introduced the amendment, known as S. 575, last March, and is currently in the hearing process of the Indian Affairs Committee.

However, Hinton says that this bill probably will not help many California Indian languages, because it is designed to only support existing schools and will probably have its biggest impact in Hawaii, where the island's indigenous language is taught in many schools.

This is not to say that it will not affect California tribes at all. Hinton says that existing programs, such as the one at Pechanga will benefit from this legislation.

Steele tells a story about a recent trip she took to meet with Oklahoma Indian tribes, where the fates of several languages are also currently on the verge of extinction. In the last few years, for example, the Delaware language has become extinct. She said that she met a Kickapoo man, who could only speak Kickapoo, a language that is still tenaciously holding on to life.

Steele asked the man through a translator why Kickapoo had survived and was in reasonably healthy shape compared to other Oklahoma languages, where most of them except for Cherokee and a few others are on the verge of extinction. In paraphrase, he replied the Kickapoos burned down the churches, and when the reformers came, they burned down the schools, and when they tried to move the tribe, the tribe left and went to Mexico.

"He's saying that you have to be tough in order to keep your language, and it is tough, but you work hard and it is really enjoyable."