Saving Tribal Tongues

California's Native Americans Are in a Race Against Time

by Patricia McBroom

Native Americans in California are working against enormous odds to save their ancestral languages before the last speakers die, a Berkeley linguist told American scientists Feb. 18 at their annual meeting in Atlanta.

Progress is being made with an apprenticeship program to teach indigenous languages to younger members of native groups, but it is a race against time, said Leanne Hinton, associate professor of linguistics.

"It's like trying to stitch together the fragile threads of a precious cloth that is coming apart in your hands," said Hinton of the language preservation program.

A woman who may have been the last speaker of Northern Pomo, native to Sonoma and Mendocino counties in Northern California, died in January in the midst of teaching a younger member of the tribe her language. She was almost 90. Many other Indian languages in the state have only one or at most a handful of speakers still alive, all of whom are older than 60, said Hinton.

Hinton spoke recently in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The good news is that some languages will be saved, thanks to a Master-Ap-prentice Language Learning Program run by a Native-American network with Hinton's help.

Beginning in the summer of 1993, the program has enlisted teachers and apprentices in 10 languages that are on the verge of extinction. This represents about a fifth of the 49 native American languages remaining in California.

The program's aim is to keep a language alive by teaching it to at least one younger member of the group who is then encouraged to set up language training for children of that tribe.

In many cases, there is only one master-apprentice pair per tribe--an elder who is the last speaker and a younger relative who agrees to work closely with the elder and learn not only the ancestral language, but the cultural traditions that go with it.

"This is very fragile work," said Hinton. "Oftentimes, the elder whose language was ignored for years must be convinced that this is a sincere effort, while the apprentice must dedicate a large portion of his life to the relationship, putting aside other career and educational goals."

The model that keeps the California teams going is that in less than 20 years, native Hawaiians have saved their language and culture from extinction. Now there is a generation of Hawaiian children who really know their ancestral language, said Hinton.

So far, good progress has been made with Karuk speakers in Humboldt County. When the program began, there were only 12 Karuk speakers left in the world, all elderly. Now four young Karuks speak it fluently.

"Even two or three new fluent speakers in a generation can extend the life of a language by 50 years or more," said Hinton.

Terry Supahan, one of the Karuk apprentices, works with his wife to teach the language to Karuk children in school, hold summer language camps and perform ceremonial dances.

Supahan is spending 20 hours a week learning the language from his elderly blind aunt and according to his own account is keeping one step ahead of the children.

The move to save these languages was given impetus in 1990 by passage of the Native American Language Act, which reversed the federal government's centuries-old drive to obliterate Indian languages and cultures.

The act gives Native American languages special status and pledges government help in saving them.

"It was very nearly too late," said Hinton of the legislation. "But still it is important."

She said that even if many of the languages do not get passed on, the effort to preserve them will have a positive impact on the self-esteem of Native American children.

"With previous policies, Indian children formed identities that were damaged," she said. "They became people who were ashamed of their heritage.

"Whatever happens to the dream of reconstructing communities of native speakers, we will at least have the languages documented on tape and video and we will have kids with strong identities," said Hinton.

Groups in the Master-Apprenticeship program are:

o the Hupa and two Karuk-speaking groups in Humboldt County, Northern California

o the Washo near Reno, Nevada

o the Yowlumni around Porterville near Fresno, Central California

o the Mohave along the Colorado River, Southern California

o the Chemehuevi, also along the Colorado, Southern California

o the Tubatulabal near Bakersfield, Central California

o the Western Mono in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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