July 31st, 2007
In my opinion, the most important cultural and social work that tribes can undertake today is to preserve and expand the everyday use of their languages.Â Nothing will better save tribal traditions, cultures and distinctness as separate peoples than to get their newÂ generations to learn their languages.Â
The Mojave Daily News reports on efforts by the Fort Mojave Tribe to preserve its language -Â Joe Scerato works to preserve an endangered language spoken for centuries by the Mojave Indians. His crowded office at Aha Macav Cultural Preservation is filled with pottery wheels, beads and fabric used to sew ribbon dresses. Currently, he’s the department’s director and its sole Mojave language instructor.
When he was growing up,Â MojaveÂ was all he heard on the reservation – the language was a part of the tribe’s culture, something that preserved their identity and made them unique.
But now – over the course of Scerato’s lifetime – Mojave has gone from a familiar sound that was often heard to a dying language spoken mostly by a few tribal elders. It’s rarely taught to children. And as the years pass and more elders die off, the language risks being wiped out completely.
Scerato estimates up to 60 members of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe understand Mojave fluently and about 20 percent of the Tribe speak it at some level, but the fluent speakers don’t always practice the language and sometimes reply in English when they’re addressed in Mojave.
The cultural preservation department offers three classes a day in basic Mojave for children age 5-16 during its summer program. But although language classes have been offered for the past five years, there are fewer available now than before. Since instructor Betty Barrackman’s recent death there are no more evening classes and classroom space in the modular home is limited.
In his language classes for children, Scerato has students working out of coloring books with the Mojave word and its English translation written below pictures of foods or animals. He listens to their pronunciation and, once the students learn enough words, he uses their vocabulary to build sentences. They take the copied booklets home to practice.
“We try to help them with some of the history of the tribe so when they go somewhere they have a knowledge of their culture and the reservation so they know who they are,” he said. “It’s our identity.”
Preserving the language hasn’t been easy for the tribe. Other tribes like the Hualapais, who live north of Kingman near the Grand Canyon National Park, have preserved their language because they’ve had the advantage of being isolated. There are no nearby towns and there’s little need for interaction with those outside the tribe. But the Mojave Indians live near Bullhead City, Laughlin and in Needles. Scerato said their daily needs don’t center around tribal lands and the language is slowly disappearing.
“It’s like we’re losing a part of our history and our tradition,” he
said. “Once you lose the language, you’re assimilated into the general population. You don’t have uniqueness anymore and you’re speaking English or Spanish like everybody else.”
The Yuman Language Family Summit is an annual gathering that brings representatives together from Colorado River Indian Tribes to discuss ways of preserving their languages. There are discussions on programs that pair Mojave children with tribal teachers and ways to create an environment for language immersion.Â “We have to have the language used every day and spoken so people can pick it up,” said Lucille Watahomigie, summit participant and director of education for the Hualapai Tribe. ?It doesn’t have to be taught. It can be acquired just by being in the environment where the language is used.”
At the University of Arizona, the American Indian Language Development Institute works to train language teachers on how to use immersion and modern technology to encourage younger people to learn their language. This year, the institute hopes to focus on grant-writing for indigenous populations and skills in documenting languages for preservation.
Linguists estimate there were once between 750 to 1,000 indigenous languages spoken in what’s now the United States, says Philip Klasky, professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. Today, about 50 of those languages remain and 80 percent are no longer taught.
Klasky said Native American languages are a rich library of information on stewardship of the environment, animals and the medicinal purposes of plants. They’re also carriers of a tribe’s identity that hold untranslatable concepts and words with no equivalents in the English language.