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A campaign to save American Indian languages

As many American Indian languages pass away with their last few elderly speakers, so do the unusual worldviews phrases can impart.

In the Lakota language, a single word expresses the awe and connectedness with nature that some feel looking at the Northern Lights. In Euchee, the language makes no distinction between humans and other animals, though it does differentiate between Euchee people and non-Euchee.

And the Koasati language of Louisiana provides no word for good-bye, since time is seen as more cyclical than linear. To end a conversation, you would say something like, "This was good."

More than 300 American Indian languages flourished in North America at the time of Columbus, each carrying a unique way of understanding the world.

And despite an often-brutal campaign to stamp them out, more than half of those languages have survived, including the Delaware Valley's Lenape, though the pool of speakers has dwindled.

Can they be saved? Last month, representatives from Indian groups around the country met with linguists and other academics in Philadelphia to see what they could accomplish together.

"We're talking about an emergency situation," said Richard Grounds, a speaker of the Euchee language and co-organizer of the meeting, held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology.

The youngest person to grow up speaking Euchee as a first language is now 78, said Grounds, a professor at the University of Tulsa. The rest are in their 80s.

Grounds learned from his own family how Indian languages were systematically squelched. His grandmother, he said, grew up speaking Euchee, but, as a teenager, was forced into an English-only boarding school where teachers would wash her mouth out with soap when she uttered a word of her native tongue.

In the last few years, he has been racing to coax all the words and wisdom he can from tribal elders.

And yet, at the meeting, a number of young people spoke and even sang in Euchee, Lenape, Miccosukke, Lakota, Miami, and other endangered languages - something that Grounds said gave him hope.

The situation in North America is part of a worldwide erosion of language diversity. At stake are not just words. For native communities, language embeds traditions, religion, medicine and geography, as well as a more general way of seeing the world.

"It's not only about the use of [medicinal] plants, et cetera, carried in a language," said Grounds, "but literally ways people have of knowing themselves."

Some languages, for example, have no way to give directions using left and right, because their speakers navigate with a less self-centered view of the world than we do, said Leanne Hinton, a linguist at the University of California, Los Angeles. They think more in terms of local geography.

Ryan Wilson, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said the quality his people value most in a man is something like courage, but includes a degree of independence and perseverance. It has no direct English translation, and with the word may go the idea and the reason it once mattered.

Wilson, who is president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, said there was also a word that describes the feeling that you cannot live without someone. It is similar to love, but something is lost in that translation.

Languages seem to be going extinct just like species of plants and animals. That comparison holds up pretty well, except that languages can occasionally be brought back to life.

Growing up in Ohio, Daryl Baldwin said he was told that the language of his Miami tribe was already extinct, but he did not accept that. As an adult, he set about digging up all available records and teaching himself.

"It changed the way I thought," he said about learning the language after 29 years of speaking nothing but English.

The Miami language contains wisdom about which foods are healthful - something that today might have helped Indians avoid being disproportionately affected by Type 2 diabetes, Baldwin said. Today, he's working to perpetuate the language as director of a program called the Myaamia Project at Ohio's Miami University.

In the Maskoke language, time and space are seen very differently from Western perception, said Marcus Briggs-Cloud, who is a member of the Maskoke Nation of Florida and a theology graduate student at Harvard. In English, time is more linear, whereas it's more cyclical in Maskoke. There's a cyclical nature to space as well, and some ceremonies focus on the renewal of space.

While the academics see these languages as windows into the human mind, the American Indians see them as a way to reconnect to their heritage and to the ancestors who used them.

"In the next few years, my tribal community will either see our language restored to a new generation, or we will bury it forever in the grave of our last few elderly speakers," said Jacob Manatowa-Bailey, of the Oklahoma-based Sauk language.

Although they seem to have common needs, Grounds said, the academic linguists interested in American Indian language have not always worked in the best interests of the people they study. The academics use funds to catalogue and dissect languages that might have been used to revive them, he said, and linguists sometimes compete for access to the few remaining elders, whose time might be better-spent teaching the language to young people who would use it.

As a member of the Euchee tribe and a historian of religion with a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, Grounds straddles both worlds. Some of the problem, he said, is a defeatist attitude, in which academics think the best they can do is catalogue languages that are destined to die. "For the community point of view," he said, "this doesn't have much value."

One of the most endangered languages is Lenape - once the dominant language of what's now eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and parts of New York and New Jersey. While a few Lenape people remained in this area, most were forced to scatter in various directions - westward to Oklahoma and north into Ontario - and only a tiny fraction of those identifying themselves as Lenape continued to speak the language.

The conference brought Lenape from diverse places. Some of those coming from Canada said they didn't know until relatively recently that there were other Lenape still living in the Delaware Valley.

Shelly DePaul, a teacher and musician in Kunkletown, said she was one of just three fluent Lenape speakers left in Pennsylvania. But now, she said, they are joining forces with Lenape from elsewhere to teach the language to children.

"There didn't seem to be a lot of hope a few decades ago, but now things are reviving," she said. "It's very exciting."