Tribes target young to save dying languages

CEDAR CITY, Utah - Butterfly is only 3, but she speaks better Paiute than most of her elders.

She can sing her ABC's in the tribe's dying language, hesitantly count to 10 and introduce herself with her Paiute nickname, Aesevetsi.

She learned it all in the Paiute Preschool Language Immersion Program, which is trying to preserve the language common to a tribe whose members are scattered throughout the Southwest. Of the 744 members in Utah, fewer than 40 speak the language fluently.

''The real sad thing is that all of these people are almost dead now,'' said Gloria Benson, who directs the preschool program for the Paiute Tribe of Utah. ''We have lost so many of our elders in the past three years, it's really scary.''

It's a dilemma facing American Indian tribes around the country.

Of the 3,200 Utes in Utah and Colorado, only about 480 are fluent in their native tongue. There are fewer than 900 Comanche speakers left in Oklahoma or Apache speakers in New Mexico. The 1990 Census estimated that more than a third of American Indian and Alaska native languages have fewer than 100 speakers.

''Out of 185 native languages still viable today, less than 20 will survive in the next 50 years,'' said Darryl Kipp of the Piegan Institute in Montana, which works for the preservation of native tongues.

The Paiutes trace the demise of their language to 1954, when a Utah senator included them on a list of tribes to be ''terminated,'' dropping their recognition as Indians. Without that designation, the Paiutes lost federal funding and much of their land.

By the time the Utah Paiutes were re-recognized in 1980, half of the tribe's members had died, many from untreated health problems. The decrease in population, and the government's policy of putting orphaned Indian children into English-only boarding schools, nearly obliterated the language.

In 1997, with a grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the tribe surveyed members of the five Paiute bands scattered around southern Utah: the Koosharem, Shivwits, Indian Peaks, Kanosh and Cedar. They found that only about 3 percent of members were using the language on a daily basis.

The next step was to find a remedy. Benson said officials first considered bringing adult education courses to the reservation or targeting teens. But members had a different idea.

''When we went out to the band areas during council meetings and presented our grant concept, many of them said that it's with the young people,'' she said. ''That's where you've got to teach it, because they're so young, they're going to learn it and they'll remember it. So that was the direction we took.''

Ten 3- and 4-year-olds attend the preschool, really just an unused storage room at tribal headquarters on the edge of Cedar City.

Cardboard cutouts of Indian children in traditional dress decorate the walls. The bulletin board and child-sized chairs bear pictures representing the Paiute nicknames teachers have given the children. There's Kiriits, the cat; Sanapi, the pitch-pine tree; Iyovi, the dove; and Kamunts, the rabbit.

The school day opens with a Paiute prayer before children move on to singing songs, including ''Mary Had a Little Lamb'' and the Barney song (''I love you, you love me ...'') in Paiute.

Storytime means either traditional tribal tales or contemporary children's books the teachers have translated themselves. As they read ''Pat the Bunny,'' the squirming students call out the Paiute words they are learning: hard, soft, rough, smooth.

''It's amazing how they pick it up. They're like little sponges,'' said teacher Vala Parshonts, who once taught an adult class but says the children learn much faster. ''I'm just trying to keep up with them.''

As the children closed the day with a ceremonial and circle dance, Benson explained that the tribe would like to expand the preschool to all five reservations.

''The next thing we're looking at is going even younger,'' she said. ''We want to work with pregnant mothers or mothers of infants and start trying to teach them, so that when they're singing with their baby they can sing Paiute and they can talk Paiute.''

Other tribes are trying similar programs to keep their languages alive, including the Paiutes of Pyramid Lake, Nev., and the Blackfeet of Browning, Mont.

One of the most ambitious is the Washoe Tribe Immersion School near Reno, Nev., where about 20 students from preschool to eighth grade share a single classroom. The school, now in its fourth year, is the Washoe's attempt to resurrect their language, which is spoken by only 60 people out of a tribe of 1,800 members.

The urge to save tribal identity has sparked a growing interest in reviving native languages, said Ofelia Zepeda, co-director of the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of Arizona and a member of the Tohono O'odham Tribe.

''I think many people have taken for granted that their language is always going to be there but now see the reality that it isn't unless you promote it actively,'' she said.

On the Net:

UA Institute:

Language links:


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment