Summit seeks lifeline for imperiled Native languages

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Richard Grounds left his work at the University of Tulsa to take on a more pressing task – teaching preschoolers in Sapulpa, Okla. the Yuchi language, which only five elders still speak.

“We’re trying to be smart about it,” said Grounds, a professor of anthropology. “We’re trying to take advantage of the time we have with our elders. We feel blessed to have the opportunity we do have.”

Grounds will be one participant in the Second Annual National Native Language Revitalization Summit in Washington D.C. held May 11 – 13. The summit begins with a day of training including a tour and talk at the National Anthropological Archives, and a workshop about fundraising to support language preservation by the Potlatch Foundation.

On Tuesday, May 12, the summit will move to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for a symposia, “From Code Talkers to Immersion: Native American Language Summit.” The participants will brainstorm best practices in languages preservation. On Wednesday, May 13, participants will gather at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Hearing Room to meet with their congressional delegations about the need to fund tribal language programs.

To participate in the summit, it’s important to register with Cultural Survival, the coordinating nonprofit, because the events will happen in different locations around Washington, D.C. To register online click on the poster for the summit, or call Jennifer Edwards Weston at (617) 441-5400, ext. 15.

The effort to preserve many Native languages has become urgent. The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., has documented the decline in Native languages in the United States from 175 in 1997 to 154 today. In 1997, most languages were spoken by people middle-aged and older. Now more than half of Native language speakers are older than 70. Only 20 languages are now routinely spoken to children.

“Even strong places that were relatively safe have experienced an incredible decline,” said Ryan Wilson, who is Oglala Lakota and a board member of the National Indian Education Association.

According to him, innovative approaches are being taken to language preservation among Indian nations including the Choctaw in Alabama and Blackfeet in Montana. Summit participants will examine these efforts and other issues that affect endangered language speakers, teachers, advocates and communities.

Wilson, who works with the Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’, an Arapaho immersion school on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation that opened last year, sees hope in its 22 young students. Grounds takes pride in the five Yuchi elders who keep working to save their language at an age when they might rightly be taking it easy.

“The hope is that by hearing other people’s experiences you can learn from that and adapt other people’s ideas,” said Fred Nahwooksy, who is Comanche and a senior programs advisor for the NMAI.