Can language preservation battle be won?

27.6.12

"Telling Stories In the Face of Danger" edited by Paul V. Kroskrity. Image courtesy University of Oklahoma Press



Imagine speaking a language that is spoken by fewer than 200 people. Visualize a culture where much of your spirituality, moral codes and traditions are transmitted solely through spoken stories. Now put yourself into a society where your sacred stories are seen by the dominant culture around you as being nothing more than quaint, childish tales.
That and more is the linguistic and cultural plight of scores of native people in our hemisphere. From at least 500 major languages spoken at the time of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, many scholars believe that fewer than 200 are spoken today. Worse yet, perhaps as many as 90 percent of the languages extant today are now threatened with extinction or are spoken by only a handful of elderly people.
Most non-English-speaking immigrants here can hear their native tongue spoken in their homeland, they can see the words on the Internet, maybe even catch a TV broadcast in their native language. For the native peoples of the Americas, this is their homeland ---- there is nowhere else to go to hear their language. It is here that their languages developed thousands of years ago, and it is here that the words and songs are becoming silent. The linguistic landscape has been altered as severely as the physical and cultural world around them.
Throughout the Americas, scholars, native and non-native, are seeking to save, restore, and revive native languages. In a just-released book from University of Oklahoma Press, "Telling Stories In the Face of Danger," Paul Kroskrity, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, offers a compilation of indigenous traditional stories, stories about the stories, and academic discourse on what stories mean to storytellers and listeners.
The tribes presented in this provocative book include southwestern and Great Basin peoples such as the Tewa, Navajo, Kiowa, Paiute, and closer to home, the Hupa of northern California and the Kumiai of Baja California.
The danger alluded to in the title takes many forms. There is the very real danger of losing native languages forever, the danger of being what Kroskrity calls "overly alarmist" regarding such loss, and the danger of non-native scholars succumbing to a form of neo-colonialism by injecting too many of their academic values and unintentionally taking on the guise of "uninvited linguistic saviors."
As Kroskrity noted in an interview, it is important not to attempt a "one size fits all" approach. His 30 years of research has taught him that some tribes are more active in their desire to preserve and revitalize their language; others are less so. Many tribes have resources to stem the tide of language endangerment; for other communities, it is a luxury they may not be able to afford. Like the languages themselves, how to preserve them is complex and culturally specific.
Kroskrity believes that the Internet will be a great asset to some tribes. For others, graphic novels seem to engage younger tribal members, and of course the strong link between oral performances where storyteller and listeners play active roles remains compelling to many. Respect, however, must always play an important role. Younger tribal members may want to gain age-old knowledge without going through the culturally defined "correct" rituals and passages.
Kroskrity also notes that in some groups there is a generational divide based on the youth needing to be visually stimulated and the elders preferring to cling to traditional oral narratives. As he points out, these decisions must be made by the people, not pushed on them.
Michael Wilken, an anthropologist working with the fragmented tribes of northern Baja California including the Kumiai, strongly believes that knowing the native names of places and of plants is one way that cultures survive. For Wilken, who has studied the people of Baja California for more than 20 years, language, culture and material objects are tightly intertwined. With a tinge of sadness in his voice, he says that with the death of every native elder a piece of the Kumiai culture is lost forever.
His colleague, Margaret Field, professor of American Indian studies at San Diego State University, agrees. Elaborating on her chapter in "Telling Stories in the Face of Danger," she states that in cultures lacking a tradition of literacy, songs and stories help reinforce cultural values and group identity. She and others are striving to revitalize the Kumiai language at native villages in northern Baja California. As she explained in an interview, one important goal of her work is to archive all of her audio and video data at the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America at the University of Texas, Austin.
Field views these archives as a place "where language lives and thrives for present and future generations, where the words and music can be heard not just read in academic papers."
Even more accessible is the Kumiai dictionary that she is working on with Amy Miller, an independent linguist and scholar. With the help of Wilken, Field and Miller are hoping to ensure that the Kumiai language, which is thousands of years old, does not become lost.
Closer to home, the Barona Cultural Museum has an exhaustive dictionary of the Kumeyaay language that can be used on site to learn more about the language. Other tribes including the Cahuilla of extreme northern San Diego County and Riverside County have their own dictionaries and several more are in the works throughout California.
The mission of native speakers and scholars like Kroskrity, Field, and Wilken is to keep these languages alive ---- not to merely study dead or dying languages. As Kroskrity noted, in the 1890s through early 1900s linguists hoped to "salvage" American Indian languages for study. This new breed of scholars and practitioners will not be content until endangered languages are saved and spoken with a fresh yet timeless voice.
Locally, you can take part in the preservation and enhancement of the native languages of the Kumeyaay and Luiseno. Classes are taught through the educational centers at Sycuan and Barona reservations, the web site kumeyaay.com provides information about classes and events, kumeyaaymapping.com offers an interactive map of native place names, and of course, annual pow wows are held at Pala, Barona and other reservations where visitors can hear native languages and stories being sung in age-old bird songs.
South of the border, Corredor Historica CAREM in Tecate is working with native speakers and strengthening the connection among language, art, and artifacts.
As the world does indeed get smaller, the tribes themselves and their linguist collaborators are cautiously optimistic that there is still a place for indigenous native languages.
Richard L. Carrico of Ramona teaches in the Department of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University and is author of "Strangers in a Stolen Land: Indians of San Diego County From Prehistory to the New Deal." 

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