Tony Mattina wishes we'd pay as much attention to saving Native American languages as we do to preserving plant and animal species like the spotted owl. "These languages deserve special attention," he says. "They were here long before Europeans. They are the native languages, period. We should preserve them as special treasures. Once a language is extinct, it's just words on paper, just like a stuffed animal in a museum."
Mattina, a native of Italy and linguistics professor at The University of Montana-Missoula, brings this passion to his work to preserve Okanagan. Stephen Greymorning and Victor Montejo, two UM assistant professors of anthropology and Native American studies, likewise work to preserve the Arapaho and Mayan languages. Their efforts are part of a growing awareness of the cultural value of American Indian languages and the growing fear that, unless they are taught to younger generations, many of these languages will soon die.
"Language and culture cannot be separated," says Montejo, a Mayan Indian from Guatemala. "If the culture is not expressed through the language, then the culture ceases to exist."
Many of the strategies for reviving American Indian languages center on teaching it to schoolchildren, but it's here also that some of the biggest obstacles lie. "The explanation given by school officials for not letting the language in the classroom is that there are no written materials, there are no certified teachers," Mattina says.
Mattina has addressed those issues in his work with Okanagan. Mattina came to the language circuitously. He discovered a love for linguistics at Drury College. Later, influenced by M. Dale Kinkade, his mentor at the University of Kansas graduate school and a scholar of the Salish family of languages of the Northwest, Mattina began studying Okanagan. One of the twenty-two Salish languages, it is now spoken by less than half the 10,000 Okanagan people, whose traditional lands include the area north of Spokane and part of southern British Columbia.
Mattina has written numerous scholarly articles about Okanagan, but in recent years he has shifted his focus to ensure that the language doesn't die. "Instead of sticking with linguistics for linguists, I reached less for the scholarly and more towards the lay person, to get these materials out," he says.
Working at the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, B.C., he trained teachers in the language and developed grammar primers, coloring books, videos and other teaching aids. But Mattina admits progress has been slow because it is difficult to teach using written materials when the entire Okanagan tradition is an oral one.
"The best way to learn it is to speak it, be immersed in it, but that's difficult," he says.
In response, he has designed interactive computer games and lessons to introduce schoolchildren to Okanagan. On his computer screen, Mattina clicks his mouse on a program that teaches children what to call their various relatives in Okanagan. There are more than fifty basic words for kin. Stick figures and a kinship diagram of a family flash up and a woman's voice on a small speaker beside the computer explains in Okanagan:
Another game throws colored pictures of wild animals on the screen and the student must match the correct Okanagan word to the picture.
Though they may look like alphabet soup to the unaccustomed eye, the letters belong to the International Phonetic Association alphabet, which is used to commit to writing many languages that have no alphabet of their own. According to Mattina, the IPA alphabet is a more logical system of representation than English orthography. The IPA alphabet assigns only one symbol to describe one particular sound, where English often assigns many letter combinations. Thus, for the sound "sh" in English, we use martian, pension, patrician, sugar, mission, chevy, fascism and shoe, while the IPA alphabet, or Okanagan, uses only .
Mattina, who has compiled a dictionary of Okanagan, says the work of committing an oral language to a written one is no great linguistic trick. The more difficult problem is to convince people to learn the language and to speak it, to keep it alive, to prevent it from becoming, as he puts it, simply "words on a page."
"What I'd really like to see is the elders paid for their knowledge so they'd be invited to the centers to talk to the kids," Mattina says when asked what more needs to be done. "Until now they've been shy, partly because many don't have a formal education. I'd like to see the elders rewarded for knowing their language, just the opposite of the way it used it be, when they were punished for using it."
"People have no idea of the magnitude of the loss of these languages," says Stephen Greymorning, a Southern Arapaho. "It's like a beast that can't be stopped. A global culture is emerging that grabs at youth and aligns them to it. It's beamed in on satellite dishes, on the Internet, on television, and distracts from the native language of the home."
Greymorning mentions the example of the Navajo, where the children know their native language, yet when the adults address them in it, they often respond in English.
Greymorning took yet another approach to bring American Indian language to children. Inspired by his young daughter's attraction to Disney films, he assembled a team to translate the classic animated film, Bambi, into Arapaho. He recruited and coached residents of Wyoming's Wind River Reservation to speak the parts, convinced the Walt Disney Company to produce the translation as a home video and distributed 2,000 cassettes to the Arapaho Nation. He is currently working on translations of the animated films The Little Fox and Willie the Sparrow.
"If you want the language to survive, it has to be everywhere that English is," he says. "It has to infiltrate every medium -- music, books, television, even the street signs on the reservation. Every time they turn around, the kids should bump into the language. That was part of the strategy behind these videos."
Greymorning cites the success the Hawaiians have had since the mid-1980s in reviving their language through "immersion schools" based on those developed by the Maori in New Zealand. Young children who speak English at home begin preschool in which only Hawaiian is spoken. The immersion schools continue throughout kindergarten. Students begin to learn English reading and writing in the fifth grade, but teachers still use the Hawaiian language as the medium of instruction. The earliest group of students bilingual in Hawaiian and English is now in about the 10th grade, Greymorning says, and the Hawaiians now plan to build an immersion college. "Anything short of immersion, and the children will revert back to English," says Greymorning, who has started preschool and kindergarten classes in Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation. "The Hawaiians have taken their language, and put it everywhere."
Another success story has been the sudden and surprising revival of the Mayan languages in recent years, after centuries of suppression by Guatemala's ruling class of Spanish descent. Traditionally, Mayans recorded their history and legends in books and stone carvings using an elaborate system of hieroglyphics. In the wake of the Spanish Conquest of the early 1500s, Diego de Landa, the bishop of Yucatan, ordered the library of Mayan books burned because he believed it "contained the works of the Devil," Montejo says. The written Mayan language essentially disappeared, although the Mayan Indians who make up the majority of the Guatemalan population continued to use the twenty-one spoken languages.
In the 1980s, the Mayan people themselves came under violent attack by a Guatemalan government and army intent on rooting out what it believed were guerrillas and communists in the upland villages. The soldiers destroyed communities and killed thousands of people, Montejo says.
At the same time, Mayan intellectuals established the Academy for Mayan Languages, which has taught schoolchildren to write in their native tongues and has standardized the written versions of the Mayan languages. It has been cited by the United Nations as a model for indigenous groups whose languages are threatened.
"When you're under great stress, you go back to your roots to make your life more meaningful within the context of your culture," says Montejo, drawing a parallel to the Ghost Dance revival of North American Indian culture on the Great Plains during the late 19th century. "There was terrible violence, and everybody responded by working to ensure the survival of the Mayan culture."
Montejo witnessed that violence firsthand when in 1982 soldiers took him at gunpoint from the classroom where he was teaching. After torturing him for a night, they released him because he was a schoolteacher. But Montejo's brother, also a teacher, was shot and killed by drunken soldiers in the village plaza. Montejo escaped his country soon after when he received an invitation from an American writer to visit the United States. He has worked and studied here since, in 1993 receiving a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. He assumed his teaching post at UM in fall 1995, bringing his wife, Mercedes, and their children to Missoula.
In order to help ensure the survival of Mayan culture, he has written books on Mayan myth and legend and a book of poetry. He has also worked with the Academy for Mayan Languages on the definitive dictionary for his native Jakaltek, also called Pop- ti', which translates into English as "The language of power."
In Montana, eleven languages are spoken by American Indians. They range from languages still spoken by only a few elders to Crow, which is very much alive. Widely spoken by adults and children alike, the Crow language is still, significantly, serving as the language of ceremony and politics.
Efforts to keep American Indian languages alive in Montana are taking place at Salish-Kootenai College in Ronan, at Blackfeet Community College and the Piegan Institute in Browning, on the Crow Reservation, and elsewhere.
Around 400 people have taken the native language classes through Salish-Kootenai College, says Joyce Silverthorne, director of bilingual education. The course offerings have included Salish, Kootenai, Cree, Northern Cheyenne and Assiniboine. At the elementary and high school levels, Arlee School offers Salish classes and Two Eagle River School offers both Salish and Kootenai classes. Silverthorne estimates that about one percent of tribal members are fluent in the native languages.
Piikanii, spoken by the Blackfeet, is in "extremely critical condition" and may be lost, says John Murray, acting chair of Blackfeet Studies at Blackfeet Community College. The demand to learn the language has grown so much the college has had to hire speakers from Canadian bands to meet the need for teachers, he says. The program continues to look for resources to hire more.
The college offers nine different levels of the language, supported by teachings in Blackfeet philosophy, myth and ceremony. Without these other teachings, the language is "just a set of symbols," Murray says. "We could just as well learn Spanish or French."
As part of their continuing effort to revive the American Indian languages in Montana, the tribes recently asked the Board of Education to approve a certification system for teachers of the languages. On November 30, 1995, the board unanimously approved the creation of a special license for those who teach Indian language in reservation schools.
This Class 7 certificate, which will be in place by May 15, 1996, does not require the teacher of an Indian language to have a four-year college degree. Tribes hope this will help them overcome the difficulties they have had getting native-language instructors into public schools.
It will also put "tribal language on an equal footing with other languages taught in school," says Kevin Howlett, education director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. In order to preserve Indian languages that are in serious danger of extinction, he added, "We want to ensure that our children, or any children who participate in the language classes, have access to very best instructors."
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