CU researchers help Native speakers save history

By Brittany Anas
Boulder, Colorado (AP) 6-08

The Wichita language, once spoken by thousands, has one remaining voice.

Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, 80, considers it a happenstance that she – the daughter of an Indian mother and white father – has become the guardian of her tribe’s language that is precariously close to extinction.

“Ever since I’ve had a memory, I could speak Wichita,” said McLemore, who was raised by her grandparents. “I never expected to be the last one, though. I can remember when everyone spoke Wichita, and in our home, we didn’t speak English.

In 1965, McLemore was among 200 in Anadarko, Okla., who had a fluent command of the language. David Rood, then a graduate student, came to the small southwestern Oklahoma city – the “Indian Capital of the Nation” – as an outsider, taking handwritten notes and using reel-to-reel tape recorders to begin archiving Wichita words. The complex language showed stark warning signs that it was headed toward endangerment.

Rood is one of three linguistics professors at the University of Colorado who have invested much of their careers in documenting dying languages – and, in effect, preserving the culture and history that live in words.

Worldwide, there are 7,000 some languages, and one fades out of existence every two weeks, according to a project conducted by National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which tracks and helps revitalize at-risk languages. The study identifies global hot spots where languages are rapidly vanishing, including Oklahoma, the Pacific Northwest, central South America, eastern Siberia and northern Australia.

The CU professors’ projects dot the map, though their work reveals a binding similarity: Languages disappear when a generation adopts a more widely spoken tongue, often while assimilating to a dominant culture.

If the Arapaho lose their language, gone, too, is their religion.

Arapaho once was a dominant indigenous language in Colorado, said Andrew Cowell, an associate linguistics professor at CU. Today most Arapaho tribal members live in Wyoming, and there are fewer than 250 remaining native speakers – with the language lost in a generational gap, as most speakers are older than 60.

“Once you get down to the younger people, and especially the children today, most of them can’t understand it at all,” said Cowell. “It’s a completely foreign language to them. Much like Chinese is foreign to Americans.”

Cowell, author of “The Arapaho Language,” a scholarly book published by the University of Colorado Press last fall, traces the endangerment of the language back to World War II, as youth left the reservation and joined the armed services. When Arapaho soldiers returned from the war, they felt like they had witnessed a “new world,” he said.

Alonzo Moss Sr., co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Language and Culture Commission, said Arapaho children take language classes. But, he said, immersion is the most effective way to revitalize the native language among today’s youth.

“Our parents and grandparents talked it to us,” Moss said. “That’s how we caught it. You have to get it back the same way.”

And it’s gravely critical for the Arapaho youth to inherit the language, he said.

“It has to be saved if we want to keep any kind of identity,” Moss said. “If we are going to do Arapaho ceremonies, our God, he doesn’t hear English.”

Cowell – who first began researching the Arapaho language a decade ago – hopes the language will live on in some way.

The Arapaho could use it as an everyday language, he said. Or, it could be used on a more critical level, solely to recite prayers and songs important to maintaining the Arapaho ceremonies.

But Cowell, and other academics who have worked on language conservation projects, say they don’t dictate how their bodies of work are used among the native speakers.

Cowell said he views his work, which includes compiling grammar guides and amassing definitions for English-Arapaho dictionaries, as an “insurance” for the future. He said he is giving options to the Arapaho people.

“As a linguist, that’s all you can do,” he said. “No linguist can go to a native country and say, ‘You’re going to preserve your language.”’

Words that are used to describe cultural practices, ideas, legends and other records rarely translate crisply into another language. Cowell said that his work, for Coloradans, can provide a connection to those “that lived before us.”

The Arapaho, Cowell said, gave definitions to Colorado landmarks, and the plants and animals that inhabited it: Pikes Peak is the “long, broad mountain”; Boulder was known as the place “where the Buffalo grazed on the mountain top”; and the bald eagle was “white-headed old man.”

“We’re connecting this 150-year-old past with the present,” Cowell said.

Languages are the most complex intellectual products of any community, said Zygmunt Frajzyngier, the chairman of CU’s linguistics department who has worked to record endangered African languages.

“If a community cherishes the language, or if a community decides the language is important to preserve the political or cultural identity, they will preserve it,” he said. “If the community decides it is not important, they will abandon it.”

But for linguists, there is a richness encoded in the words, Frajzyngier said.

“Very simply, if a language is abandoned and we don’t have a trace of it, we don’t know what kinds of meanings a given community has created. This is a huge loss,” said Frajzyngier, whose current work is with the Wandala, a tribe of about 20,000 in central Cameroon.

On a white board, in a small CU meeting room, Rood breaks up a Lakota word: Icu-pi-kte.

It means, “They will take it,” and Della Badwound, a native Lakota speaker, confirms the pronunciation.

Rood, through a separate Lakota project, is training native speakers to be linguists so the tribe can save its language. The Lakota language has more hope than other native tongues, such as Wichita, since it’s still spoken by as many as 9,000 people.

Badwound, who is originally from the Pineridge Reservation in South Dakota, grew up speaking Lakota.

“We were very happy speaking the language, until I went to boarding school,” she said.

There, she said, children were punished if they spoke Lakota, and were afraid to speak their ancestral language, she said.

Now, she wants today’s generation of Lakota children to speak the language freely and without fear of punishment.

Many American Indian languages phase out because of the intermarriage of tribes and the adoption of English as a common language, Rood said. Native speakers also acquired English for work or the military, he said.

For the Wichita, Rood said, passing on an extra language was a luxury overshadowed by basic needs as parents struggled to put food on the table.

“You had to speak English to get a job and make a living,” he said. “And many parents felt that the Wichita language was just not a useful thing to pass on to their children.”

As the language’s last speaker, McLemore now carries a recorder and saves words as she remembers them. And if she can’t find a word catalogued in her memory, there’s nobody to whom she can default.

When she was young, she accompanied her monolingual grandmother on trips to the grocery store and on other daily errands, translating Wichita into English.

But later in her life, with an English-speaking husband and children, there were periods when she didn’t speak Wichita at all.

Now, she said, she’s eager to help preserve her native tongue in any way she can, working with Rood and her tribe’s language consultant, as well as holding classes for Wichita children.

“I hope that it’s never completely forgotten, but I don’t know if there will ever be another fluent speaker,” McLemore said.

On the Net:

CU Center for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the West:

Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages: