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Rare Yakama language now taught at U of O

EUGENE, Ore. – When his foreign language instructor says something, University of Oregon freshman Carson Viles knows it’s important to pay attention.

“I might never get a chance to hear that phrase again,” he said.

It’s true. Viles is taking Yakama Sahaptin, one of a family of American Indian languages spoken along the Columbia River and offered for the first time this year at U of O. The class, taught by Native speaker and Yakama elder Virginia Beavert, is not a typical foreign language class. There are no textbooks, no study-abroad programs, no dubbed TV shows, and the instructor is one of only 200 people who can converse in the target language.

Viles knows the importance of hearing native speakers such as Beavert.

“It’s the only way you can sound right,” he said. “You hear how they speak and when they pause.”

Viles grew up in Eugene and graduated from Willamette High School. He’s a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, and he’s a linguistics major with a particular interest in American Indian languages.

Studying such languages is a family affair for Viles. His brother is in the Sahaptin class and also studies Chinook Wawa, a trade language. Viles and his father are also studying Dee-ni, a language spoken on the Siletz reservation in Lincoln County.

Viles’ grandmother was raised by her great-great-grandmother, who spoke fluent Dee-ni. But when Viles’ grandmother had her own children, she spoke to them in English.

“There was a lot of shame associated with being Indian,” Viles said. “There was a lot of racism.”

Much of the reason for the disappearance of American Indian languages lies in government-run and religious boarding schools in the 1880s through 1920s. As part of a philosophy to “kill the Indian and save the man,” children were rounded up and sent to schools where they were expected to discard their clothing and hairstyles, convert to Christianity and speak only English. Many were punished severely for speaking in their native languages.

Though Viles’ grandmother was not sent to a boarding school, she, too, was pressured to assimilate. Viles is one of a new generation trying to reclaim his family’s language and culture. “It’s up to young Indian people,” he said.

And they need help from elders like Beavert.

Now 87, she grew up speaking a variety of American Indian languages, and said she didn’t realize they were imperiled.

“I never worried about it – I thought everybody knew how to talk,” she said.

She was born in a bear cave in Eastern Oregon after her father’s hunting party got stranded in the snow.

“My mother was very pregnant, but he couldn’t make her stay home. She was stubborn,” Beavert said. She was raised by her great-grandfather and great-grandmother in a village where no one spoke English. She served as a wireless radio operator during World War II, and worked as a medical transcriptionist.

In her 40s, at the urging of her stepfather, she went to Central Washington University where she earned a degree in anthropology. In the course of her studies, she literally wrote the book about Yakama Sahaptin: the “Yakima Language Practical Dictionary,” published in 1975.

After finishing the dictionary, Beavert was the first woman elected to the Yakama General Council. She served for 14 years before retiring to care for her 90-year-old mother.

“All we did was talk our language,” Beavert said. “When she was gone, I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

She decided to go back to school. In 1997, she earned a master’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education from the University of Arizona.

Today, she’s a doctoral candidate at an age where most people are content to watch daytime television.

“I’m trying to retire,” she said. “People say, ‘What on earth is this old lady doing on campus?’”

Joana Jansen, a doctoral student who is working to comprehensively document Sahaptin grammar, hopes Beavert doesn’t make good on her threat to retire anytime soon.

“No one else could teach this class,” she said.

Jansen said about half of the class’ 10 students are American Indian. Other students “just thought it was cool” to study the language.

The course can be applied toward the language requirement for earning a bachelor’s degree, which states that students must show proficiency in a second language equivalent to completing two years of college study.

Jansen helps coordinate the class along with Roger Jacob, who is working toward his master’s degree in the Department of Linguistics’ Language Teaching Specialization. Jacob was born in Seattle and learned some Yakama Sahaptin from his paternal grandmother. When Jacob’s father was born, his grandmother spoke to him only in English.

“She saw that things were changing and it was becoming a white man’s world,” Jacob said. “She thought she was doing him a favor.”

He hopes to teach language classes on the Yakama reservation in southern Washington. He said several tribal members have earned advanced degrees and come back to manage Yakama-held forests and rivers.

“Our leaders recognize the importance of fish and timber, but somehow language slipped through the cracks,” Jacob said. He hopes to inspire a similar trend in language teaching.

“I want people to say, ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it,’” he said. “Language is crucial

to culture.”