BERKLEY, Calif. - Tossing stuffed animals in the air might seem to be an activity conducive to nursery school yet for a pair of language facilitators, the toys are more than just child's play, they are a tool for cultural survival.
With a table strewn with dolls and other props, this duo from the group Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS) is working its way across the continent in the race against time. In visiting various tribes and reserves, Nancy Richardson-Steele and L. Frank Manriquez attempt to provide the impetus and teaching techniques to the communities' elders to revive dialects that are endangered.
In California alone there are 50 Aboriginal languages existing but many remain alive only as long as their older citizens do. Often without a written history of their language, once these seniors die so will this part of Native culture. Some of these bands have fewer than 10 speakers, hence the urgency and why the AICLS formed a decade ago.
While Richardson-Steele and Manriquez are conversant in several dialects, in no way can they teach any given community its tongue. Rather, using a system AICLS has developed called the Master/Apprentice Program (MAP), fluent speakers, quite often the elders, are paired with non-speaking residents to prevent the language from being lost.
Instead of straight memorization of words, MAP encourages the training of new speakers by immersing them in conversation and activity. This allows the teaching philosophy and the incorporation of MAP to remain the same even though languages are different between Indian populations.
"You're getting them to understand you and what you're doing, not (just) the one word or one object," said Richardson-Steele recently to a group of two dozen potential teachers of the Cree and Dene Suline languages at the Blue Quills reserve east of Edmonton, Canada. "You have to get beyond teaching words towards getting to teach the language through activities."
One of the keys in learning a Native language AICLS has discovered is repetition, especially in the absence of written characters or books. A word needs to be said 20 times in 20 different situations, or 400 times, before the student will have it ingrained. Instead of enduring the dullness of rote memory, the language comes alive with fluid speech, even if it's in simple sentences.
Community teachers are encouraged to develop lesson plans that revolve around daily routines. That's why Richardson-Steele and Manriquez bring out the animals, kitchen cutlery or other objects in what almost becomes a quasi-acting seminar.
By using the language in everyday scenarios, words and phrases have context. Richardson-Steele cited the example of when she visited the Makah tribe in northwest Washington state. That community's teachers invigorated their language by conducting lessons during fishing expeditions and revitalized the dialect by repeatedly saying the different parts of the fish or the name of each technique, such as casting the line.
"These are the details that can be so easily lost because these are activities or objects that can't be translated into English or another language," said Richardson-Steele.
As Richardson-Steele has been studying languages for 30 years and has teaching credentials, there is a sharp contrast in dynamics between her and Manriquez who represents the opposite end of the learning curve. Barely a high school graduate, Manriquez, also an original board member of AICLS, suffers from dyslexia.
Manriquez however, brings this invisible disability to light to show that the learning of languages does not have to be restricted to those who are book smart. Rather, working to increase cultural awareness ultimately leads to improved self and community esteem.
"The worst thing that could happen in (past) Indian society was to be ostracized and not knowing language is a (form of) ostracizing and then you can't be yourself," said Manriquez.
Once the master and apprentice break off into one-on-one or small group sessions, AICLS has created a series of steps for improved learning conditions, the first of which is to leave English behind. By stressing active learning, the group has determined that it is preferable to struggle in an Aboriginal language, even if body movements and gestures are used, than to fall back on the crutch of using a non-Native tongue.
Also of importance is the need to listen and speak rather than to write and be concerned about grammar. When Richardson-Steele was addressing her audience she said that students of Aboriginal languages should be concentrating on being able to speak to somebody rather than having the skills to write a letter. Richardson-Steele asked what phonetics system would be used to symbolize an Indian dialect? English?
"When you have a child learning a language, you don't give them a pen and tell them how to write," she said.
To learn a language as an adult requires a humility and patience to accept starting again. Richardson-Steele and Manriquez state that frustration is natural and the process requires patience but eventually after two or three months, the student will break out on their own.
"It asks us to step out of ourselves a little bit in order to accomplish a goal," Manriquez said about some of the awkwardness and shyness.
Yet, adding to the frustration for some Aboriginals is a troubled history associated with speaking an Indian language. In their travels, some of the constants these facilitators have witnessed are tears and anger, usually at the start of any three-day conference.
"No matter where we went, it happened and people were crying and getting angry," Richardson-Steele said about what she now calls the Friday nights grief-and-growl sessions.
When AICLS visited the Blue Quills, it was the first time they had conducted a seminar in Canada. Richardson-Steele stated the direness of language survival is not as severe as elsewhere but estimates that without remedying the situation, the local Dene dialect would be extinct in two generations.
She should know. Among her own Karuk people, there were a mere 11 who could speak the tribe's language. But due to the past decade of master-apprentice training, there are 18 new speakers. These are not huge numbers, but a growth that represents the optimism for Native languages.
"We do more than just survive because we're moving into the future," Manriquez said about other programs offered at AICLS. "It isn't that desperate because it's mixed with hope."
To contact the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, write AICLS, 1215 66th St. Berkeley, CA 94702 or call (510) 655-8770.