Skip to main content

Defying the Silence, Part Two: A race against time

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The 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 disappeared.

Gradually, 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 tongues.

By the 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.

Those 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.

Laura 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.

In 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 language.

The 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 language.

"It's really a race against time," says Grant.

To 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.

Recently, 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.

Leanna 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 through song.

Mojado 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.

"Many elders have the gift of speaking the language but not the teaching skills," says Mojado. 'That's what we were trying to provide.

One of 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.

The 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.

Gary 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.

"Right 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."

In 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.

Luiseno 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.

Villaina 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.

Elliot 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 in California.

He is 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 County.

"I try to be very respectful of everyone's dialect," says Elliot.

Elliot 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Hinton 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.

Hinton 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 communication.

She 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.

"You 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 language."

Funding 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, particularly vocabulary.

The 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.

Also, 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 eye.

Both 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 themselves.

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.

"In general, we have to incorporate vocabulary on a case-by-case basis," says Grant.

(Continued in Part Three)