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Language restoration a top priority at Mashantucket conference

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – Buffy Sainte-Marie, an entertainment icon both within and outside Indian country, expressed the overarching theme of the recent Mashantucket language conference – that language is not a part of a people’s culture; it is a people’s culture.

Sainte-Marie, who was born at Piapot (Cree) Reserve in Saskatchewan and raised in Maine and Massachusetts, was the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference, which took place Feb. 22 – 24 at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. “The Mashantucket Language Conference: Preservation and Reclamation of Indigenous Languages” was the third biennial event exploring the academic and cultural uses of aboriginal languages.

More than 150 people from all over the United States and Canada attended the conference where 30 presenters, including linguists, artists, students, musicians, poets and storytellers, described their wide-ranging scholarly research, language restoration projects, pedagogy and art.

Sainte-Marie spoke for more than an hour and a half to a captivated audience about her work in language education, sometimes gliding across the auditorium floor or punctuating a point by stamping her foot.

“Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is vital to understanding our unique cultural perspectives. Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures,” Sainte-Marie said.

Famous as an Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter, Sainte-Marie has a teaching degree, a degree in oriental philosophy and a doctorate in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts. In 1968, she founded the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education and helped develop the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an ever-evolving interactive multimedia CD-ROM teaching tool that presents curricula, including aboriginal language, in culturally meaningful ways for Indian children.

This new way of learning gets rid of the old stereotypes of “dead text about dead Indians,” Sainte-Marie said.

“What we’re looking for is effectiveness in revitalizing our languages, in saving the cultures of our communities, and in building the self-esteem of people in those communities and passing into the future generation the yet-evolving wisdom and skills of Native American cultures,” said Sainte-Marie.

Toward the end of her presentation, an audience member asked for a song, and Sainte-Marie obliged.

Using her microphone as a drum, she sang “Relocation Blues,” a plangent song about the former government practice both in the United States and Canada of removing children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages.

Among the other presenters that day was Drew Haden Taylor, an award-winning playwright, author, filmmaker and humorist who recently published his 17th book, “Me Funny,” about Native humor. Hayden Taylor described himself as half-Ojibway and half-Caucasian.

“That makes me an ‘occasion’ – either a special occasion or, at the very least, a memorable occasion,” Hayden Taylor said, cracking up the audience.

Hayden Taylor grew up on the Curve Lake Reserve in Ontario, where he would fall asleep to the sound of family members talking and laughing under a tree in the yard. Starting out as a writer, he noticed that most of the work by Native writers was “dark, angry, depressing, bleak and sad; and I began to think, is this the kind of writing I have to do?”

Humor, he realized, was the “shield and sense of sanity” that allowed Native people to survive 500 years of oppression.

“I wanted to explore the Native funny bone,” Hayden Taylor said. Native people like to tease a lot and Native humor is often self-deprecatory, he said, but it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. What makes Native people laugh also makes non-Native people laugh, Hayden Taylor said.

Klewetua, aka Rodney Sayers, gave a presentation called “Water Was Our Highway,” reflecting the rivers and ocean-based landscape of Ahswinnis, an area now known as Port Alberni, British Columbia, where the Hupacasath First Nation artist lives and works.

Sayers is a “student of language” who inherited his tribe’s language program by default – no one else applied for the job, he said. In addition to his work in the language revitalization project, Sayers is a river guide with his tribe’s tours; and both the language and river work shape his production as an artist, he said.

A PowerPoint presentation showed, among other things, an image of mountain range that marked the easternmost boundary of the tribe’s territory. The mountain range is called “Jagged Peaks Pointing Upwards,” Sayers said.

“We have restored as many place-names of our territories as possible, and we don’t name places or things after living people or people at all because when you move on you don’t want things attached to you in this world,” he explained.

Many of the tribes’ elders – who were fluent speakers and, therefore, culture-keepers – have passed on, which makes the work difficult, Sayers said.

The language, called the Nuu Chah Nulth Barkely dialect, originated around the activities of the tribe’s ancestors, many of which centered on fishing and river activities.

“A lot of those activities are gone or have few participants so the language has become obscure and hard to apply to everyday life and difficult to translate into English for learning purposes,” Sayers said.

The language project has compiled a phonetic alphabet with some icons not present in the English language and is about to publish its third language book.

“Really, what we need to do is get people talking our language in our homes. My mother was a fluent speaker with a huge amount of knowledge of our history, but she never taught me. She went to residential schools as a child, so I’m not sure if they took the spirit out of her, but she’s gone now and I’ll never know,” Sayers said.

“‘The Water Was Our Highway’ is the name of my presentation, but we’ve got to get rid of the past tense. The water is our highway and it’s the way we’re going to travel and it’s a matter of understanding our language and applying it, rather than just thinking of it as a thing that we have to achieve,” Sayers said.