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Special UN Report: Speaking in Tongues, The Midnight Hour

At the second annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held in May at the United Nations in New York, participants spoke with ICT about the relationship between language and health in Native communities. This multi-part series is a forum of their perspectives, reaching from the Americas to Australia.

UNITED NATIONS - Unless you live high on the Antarctica ice shelf, somewhere close to you a language is dying. Of 6,000 languages currently spoken worldwide, linguists estimate that over half will disappear during the next century. And indigenous peoples speak 60 percent of those tongues, a diversity melting faster than a polar ice cap in summer.

The odds may be fierce, but Richard Grounds is out to buck them. Director of the Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project (ELP), based in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, Grounds came to the Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York with a petition: that 2005 be declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and that the United Nations educate the public about the disastrous trend of global language loss.

Grounds, 47, remembers when there were hundreds of fluent Euchee speakers in Oklahoma during his childhood. Today, there are six. The youngest of them, he says gravely, is 73 years old.

Euchee, unfortunately, has plenty of company. Of 27 Native languages in Oklahoma, says Grounds, only four have children who can speak them. "Literally," he warns, "the amount of time that we have to learn those languages and get them passed off to young people in the community coming up is the lifetime of those elders. We're talking 10, 15, 20 years."

The ELP is something like a linguistic Noah's ark. With six full and part-time employees, the program has been giving community language classes for 10 years, knowing full well that disaster may be near. "To me," explains Grounds, "our languages are the core of who we are as a people."

The Euchee, who once ranged from Florida through Georgia and Alabama, were removed to Indian Territory in the 1830s, taking their language and sacred fires with them. The coals were relit at the end of their journey, says Grounds, and "that's essentially what we're trying to do now ? Many of our elders in Oklahoma say, 'if you can't speak your language, who are you?'"

Linguists call the Euchee tongue an isolate, meaning it doesn't resemble any other known language. Isolates are among the most complex languages because they don't develop streamlined grammars as, for example, English has done while spreading across the world and being molded by cultures far and wide.

Grounds, part Euchee, is learning the language where it matters most: at home. "I can say anything it takes to discipline my kids," he laughs. "Tell them to wash their hands, their face, their dishes, their clothes ? Anything that I learn in Euchee language, I stop saying in English."

Euchee's divergence from English is what makes it so hard to learn. The language requires, for example, different pronouns according to the gender of the person speaking, the person spoken to, and how old they are. As a result, men and women use different "markers" in conversation. "Euchee is an entirely different way of thinking the world," muses Grounds. "We realize how rich and complex the simplest thing can become" when learning Euchee, "and we celebrate that."

Grounds cites his grandmother as a personal inspiration. Ella Pickett went to mission boarding school in Sapulpa in the 1910s, already in her mid-teens and too old to forget her Euchee tongue the way younger children at school did. "When she left boarding school, she still knew her language and continued to speak it every day of her life, but she would not allow my father to.

"So I've seen it in my lifetime pass from my grandmother, who grew up speaking only Euchee, to my father, who's not allowed to speak it, and now we're going back to people of my father's generation, many of whom were raised by grandparents - that's the reason they still have that language."

Indian nations across the country face a similar dilemma. But "very few of the tribal programs are actually producing speakers," argues Grounds. "They're producing wonderful greetings and knowledge of colors and counting - but that's not speaking the language." The Euchee, he counters, don't want to preserve their idiom simply as "hard data," but to speak it as a living tongue.

Tribal leaders and elders don't always grasp the difference. The goal of the project is "not merely to record [Euchee], or document it so that it will produce dictionaries or things that can go on shelves," says Grounds, formerly a professor at the University of Tulsa. Academic work can be valuable, "[but] what it's not very good at is addressing the kind of underground urgencies that our communities are facing."

Since the ELP doesn't have tapes, teaching materials, or even a standard written language, they use what they have - six fluent speakers and a captive audience. As Grounds puts it, "it's all about the elders."

Imagine something like an old one-room schoolhouse. Teens, kids, and elders show up for a weekly lesson and meal with the Euchee speakers. "It's a community class, and both a blessing and a challenge of the class is that everyone's there." Still, Grounds says, they focus on young people, because they will survive the longest to carry on tradition. Eighty percent of native languages in the U.S. and Canada, one recent study found, are no longer learned by children.

The ELP has taken a different tack of late to increase exposure to Euchee. Small clusters of master/apprentice teams meet in a concentrated immersion format - if possible, one-on-one with a family member - in what amounts to recreating the learning model of a child. The technique began in California, where the loss of Indian languages in small communities has been especially dramatic.

Funding for ELP has come from the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, the Administration for Native Americans, the Running Strong for American Youth program, even the United Methodist church. But the non-profits have a funding agenda set years in advance, says Grounds, while "we're counting the months, we're counting the weeks."

Only two years ago, he recalls, the last Euchee "medicine person" died. Of course, the native knowledge of plants is fully intelligible only if one speaks the language. But that's just the beginning of what the words can mean to a people.

"It's not just the plant," says Grounds, who holds a Ph.D. in the History of Religions. "It's not just whatever pharmaceutical effect that particular chemical property might have in certain systems in the body?"

"Every community I'm aware of always requires some kind of spoken words or sounds. In our ways, there are songs or chants or specific set prayers. There's a ceremonial element that goes with the plant, of the administration of the traditional medicine." Words, he says, are a central part of healing in any community.

Though most Euchee are enrolled as Muskogee Creek, they've been seeking federal recognition for over a decade. While that's important for economic opportunity, agrees Grounds, an enrolled Seminole, "the thing that cannot be done 10 or 20 years from now with federal recognition is to keep our language."

We lose a book or a hat, we get a new one. But language is made of different stuff. "It's a base of knowledge," avers Grounds, "but also, in some sense, a strategy for acquiring understanding." Not only have the traditional Euchee homelands been left behind, but soon, too, the way they described them will disappear, another inestimable loss unless the elders can pass on the fire.

Meanwhile, Grounds is waiting on the U.N. for a response to his 2005 proposal. "People talk about the theft of a continent," he says slowly, "but the greatest loss is happening right now." For most tribes, he mutters, "it's the midnight hour."