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Trying to save vanishing languages

American Indians turn to recordings at American Philosophical Society.

Timothy Powell, director of special American Indian projects for the American Philosophical Society, holds a microphone for Watie Akins of the Penobscot Nation during "Welcome Song."
Timothy Powell, director of special American Indian projects for the American Philosophical Society, holds a microphone for Watie Akins of the Penobscot Nation during "Welcome Song."Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

In the bright morning sun, Larry Aitken stood in the green Jefferson Garden next to the American Philosophical Society's library, offering up his Ojibwe words and his sacred pipe to infuse the conference with truth and purpose. Pungent smoke curled into the air.

Aitken - dressed in a vivid red shirt with a black bear on the back - presented an unusual image in the heart of the busy city. But for the 70 or so people gathered on South Fifth Street across from Independence Square, the Sacred Pipe Ceremony was both natural and essential.

Last month, representatives from 10 tribal communities across the United States, plus archivists and scholars, gathered for a two-day conference here to discuss how to make practical use of the philosophical society's vast collection of historic Native American materials, including about 113,000 photographic images and more than 1,000 hours of recorded American Indian languages.

This was no arcane academic exercise. Many native languages are on the verge of extinction, with only a handful of fluent speakers surviving, and many others already have passed into history.

Aitken, tribal historian for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota, performed the ceremony at the beginning of the conference because the stakes were very high: Succeed in revitalization efforts or see languages die. All human and higher powers will be necessary to prevent that.

For Glenna J. Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee tribe in Oklahoma, the conference represented part of the broad effort her tribe is making to avert obliteration of the Shawnee language.

The Eastern Shawnee, one of three federally recognized Shawnee tribes, were removed from their ancestral homeland in Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley in 1832. They were driven, she said, "like cattle," to their current homeland - losing history, culture, stories, language, and many people along the way.

In 2009, at a conference in Williamsburg, Va., historians told Wallace and other Shawnees that their language would be dead in a decade.

"This step here, in 2010, is a step to reclaim that language, to preserve that language," she said last week. "In our tribe we basically have no knowledgeable speakers. In the Absentee Shawnee tribe, they are now down to about 50. And in the Shawnee tribe known as the Loyal Shawnees, they have fewer than 10."

Among the 1,000 hours of recorded language at the philosophical society, now digitized thanks to a $483,000 Mellon Foundation grant, there are tapes of spoken Shawnee.

"They do have some tapes," said Wallace. "That's one of the reasons we came. They also have 1910 stories of Shawnees. So that's another reason. Absolutely."

According to Robert J. Miller, a Shawnee and law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., there were an estimated 300 distinct languages spoken in North America at the time Europeans first arrived in the late 15th century.

"There are only 175 of those languages alive at all today," Miller said in a short talk to conference attendees. "What does that mean? How are they alive? The Senate heard testimony in 2000 that 11 percent of those 175 languages were still spoken . . . by children and adults; 17 percent of those languages were only spoken by the parental generation; 40 percent of those 175 languages were only spoken by the grandparents' generation; and 30 percent of the 175 languages were really extinct at that time or would be in 10 years."

Archivists and librarians at the philosophical society are acutely aware of the precarious nature of native languages. The conference represented the culmination of a three-year effort to digitize the society's holdings - which have been accumulating for more than two centuries - and make them widely accessible over the Internet.

At the same time, the society has sought to work with tribal communities to find ways they can take advantage of the material, formerly available only to a small world of on-site scholars.

Michael Zimmerman, a Pokagon Potawatami linguist from Dowagiac in southwestern Michigan, said he found several hours of tapes in the society's archives recorded a generation ago in his own community. The material will help Zimmerman overcome local resistance to learning Potawatami from outside speakers.

Such resistance, which is not uncommon, has severely hampered efforts to resurrect language in a community that no longer has native speakers, he said.

"I speak, but I had to go outside of my community to learn, and there's some contention with that because of the fact that I didn't learn in my area. So some people say I speak different," Zimmerman said.

"But what's interesting is I go dig back into archives - actually, this archive here had something, around 16 tapes of audio of two elders in my community. And this is from back in 1992. . . . Last night I got copies of them and I'm playing them in my hotel room and I understand everything that they're saying."

That languages have survived at all, given - among other factors - the long federal effort to root them out by compelling Indian children to speak only English at government schools, is testimony to the fierce persistence of native cultures.

Tom Belt, elder-in-residence in the Cherokee studies program at Western Carolina University, said there are approximately 300 native speakers among the 14,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

"Herein lies the crux of the problem," he said. "How do we get more spoken? We're at such a low ebb as far as language is concerned. And that's why we're here."

Why is preserving the language so important?

"The fact is that the language not only validates but embodies the idea of being something," Belt said. "The importance of the language is that without it we can't be who we are. All language is the way we interpret the world - any language is. Any language on the face of the Earth is simply the way in which that particular group of people in that geographic area interpret the world. And if we have to interpret our world with the language with which another people interpret the world, then it is no longer our world.

"We're not that people. We're something, but we're not what we say we are. So in order to be Cherokee, in order to be that, that's the importance of it. In order to be that, we have to say that, we have to speak that, we have to think that."