Teaching Indigenous Languages  

Revitalizing Indigenous Languages

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Chapter 1 of Revitalizing Indigenous Languages, edited by Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie (pp.1-5). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Copyright 1999 by Northern Arizona University. Dr. Littlebear's paper and poem are adapted from a speech delivered at the Fourth Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium at Flagstaff, Arizona, on May 2, 1997. It was not transcribed from the recording in time to be included in Teaching Indigenous Languages. The editors decided to include it here so that it would not be forgotten. Copyright © 1999 by Richard Littlebear. Return to Table of Contents

Some Rare and Radical Ideas for Keeping Indigenous Languages Alive

Richard Littlebear

When the U.S. Government acted to silence our languages, it was acknowledging how our languages empowered and united us when we spoke them. By attempting to silence our languages, the U.S. Government was exhibiting real fear of our languages. It diligently tried to suppress the power of our languages.

But why save our languages since they now seem to have no political, economic, or global relevance? That they seem not to have this relevance is exactly the reason why we should save our languages because it is the spiritual relevance that is deeply embedded in our own languages that is important. The embeddedness of this spirituality is what makes them relevant to us as American Indians today.

When I was invited to come to Flagstaff, Arizona, to keynote the Fourth Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium, I challenged myself to come up with different ways to say "just speak your language" because that is really the core of my message. If we all just spoke our languages to our young people, we would have no need for indigenous language curricula or for conferences such as this one to save our languages. If we just spoke our languages, all of our languages would be healthier, but I know that is not what's happening. We do not speak our languages and our languages are dying. We are also confronted with a voracious language, English, that gobbles up everything in its way. We have to devise strategies now to face the problems that our languages have never encountered before.

Since this is the first time and only time we are going to lose our languages, we have to devise new strategies accordingly. There is no hierarchy to the rare and radical ideas I am presenting here, one is no better or worse than any of the others.

This first idea is that we have no more elders living from the previous century. That means we no longer have that linguistic and spiritual link to the previous cultures. For the Cheyenne people, we began making the changeover to a different type of culture and to a written language about a century ago. Those in my generation who speak the Cheyenne language are quite possibly the last generation able to joke in our own language. We are possibly the last ones who can talk in our language about profound physical, psychological, and spiritual topics and do it in the appropriate technical language. We can articulate how we feel physically, psychologically, and spiritually and know with satisfaction that we have been understood. The generations that succeed us will be unable to articulate those same feelings in Cheyenne since English is now their first language. And the sad part is that even in their first language, English, they have trouble talking about the deeper meanings of life since they are not being taught English very well at school or at home.

One of the objections I have against mechanical and electronic means of teaching our languages, which are advocated by many today, is that we omit the "spice words" that enliven our languages. Linguists call these "spice words" particles. These are words that give variety and meaning to our languages. When these words are isolated, they do not stand alone because they often depend on grammatical and semantic links to whatever is being discussed. So when our people are recorded speaking their own languages, often these "spice words" are omitted and the languages become very stilted and formal.

Since we have no more elders from the previous century, we should be concentrating on our youth. We should be volunteering to help in school-based programs instead of criticizing them into oblivion. We should be doing those things that are proactive and positive that ensure the continued use of our languages.

Whenever we as American Indian people develop some curriculum materials, we tend to immediately develop a faction that opposes their use. This opposition occurs without anybody appreciating the fact that members of our own tribes locally produced these materials. Yet we will question and demolish our own home-produced materials. What makes this situation even worse is that when we get curriculum materials from outside our geographical and cultural boundaries, we don't utter a word of protest or criticism. I have had this criticism happen to me, and it is really discouraging.

A second idea is that language is the basis of sovereignty. We are always talking about sovereignty and rightfully so, because when we were dealing with the U.S. Government during the treaty era, our people were treated as nations equal in stature to the U.S. Government. It was a government to government relationship. We have all those attributes that comprise sovereign nations: a governance structure, law and order, jurisprudence, literature, a land base, spiritual and sacred practices, and that one attribute that holds all of these other attributes together: our languages. So once our languages disappear, each one of these attributes begins to fall apart until they are all gone.

For instance, land ceases to be sacred and becomes looked on as only a commodity to be bought and sold. Our land base and sacred practices are passed on through our languages, not by English, the language spoken by people who killed our people and oppressed our languages. Think about that. We are still accepting the idea that English is a superior language. The passage of time and the continuing loss of our languages separates us from our sacred references and our sacred sites. We have to refer to them constantly. We need to see that our languages continue to refer to our sacred sites. At Dull Knife Memorial College where I work, we took a field trip to Bear Butte in South Dakota's Black Hills. Bear Butte is our most sacred site. It surprised me to learn that this field trip was the first time most of the students had ever gone to this sacred area. Many did not know the spiritual significance of Bear Butte. Another indication that we are losing our link with our land and sacred sites concerns the following. On our Reservation we have a moratorium on developing and exploiting our natural resources. This moratorium was set in place in the 1970s. However, in a recent informal survey of students in our college, most of them were for development of natural resources. This came as quite a shock to my generation.

A third idea is that of protocol in some of our ceremonies and the language used in those ceremonies. For instance, there are some rituals that I have never participated in on our reservation. Consequently, I am unable to participate in some activities and to use the language associated with that ritual. The dilemma is that those people who have the right to use that vocabulary and language and who have done the rituals are dying. When they die, all of this language will be lost forever. I do not have the years needed to do the rituals, and I don't want to truncate or abbreviate or shortcut any of the rituals. But I keep saying that someone should write these words down on paper and leave them for posterity. I my-self do not have to hear or read what they have written. This loss of this specialized language will become a major obstacle in retaining the full richness of languages and cultures yet I do not have a solution for overcoming this protocol.

A fourth idea is that some of our people go to college and may return to us to help preserve our languages and cultures. However, when they return from college, they often are not accepted by their own people or are viewed with suspicion and skepticism. I speak from experience. I have been off my reservation and have earned a doctorate. These factors often lead to my being discounted and dismissed because some people assert that I think too much like a white person. I counter by saying "but there are 250,000,000 other people in this country who think like white people, so what is wrong with that?" For me, this suspicion and skepticism are difficult to understand. The rejection of American Indian people by their own people is almost like the rejection of formal education. I just hope that this rejection is not a rejection of learning because I do not know of any tribal group that ever rejected learning. Also, I am a product of the BIA [U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs] educational system, and that experience has made me very suspicious of education that is assimilationist and cruel. I refer to the episodes when American Indian people's mouths were washed out with harsh G.I. soap whenever they spoke their own languages.

I have heard it said that you can't go home again. Well, I am back home and regardless of how much I am rejected by my own people, I am staying. If people want to argue about that I will argue, and I can do that in two languages.

A fifth radical idea is that we must inform our own elders and our fluent speakers that they must be more accepting of those people who are just now learning our languages. We must sensitize our elders and fluent speakers to the needs of potential speakers of our languages. In many of our tribes, the elders are teachers and bearers of wisdom. As a result, when they criticize or make fun of a person trying to speak one of our languages they are taken very seriously, and some people will not even try to speak the language once they have been criticized by a respected elder of that tribe. When this happens, it hastens the death of that language. Somehow we must turn this negativity around. Do not be so over-corrective about pronunciation. We all make mistakes. I have spoken two languages all of my life, and yet I still make mistakes in both of them. I spent five years intensively studying the English language, and I still make mistakes in that language in reading, writing, and speaking. However, in spite of my mistakes, I have been successful at writing articles and speeches in the English language and some have even been published. As long as we can understand each other, we are doing all right. Understanding each other in our languages is the main criterion, not our errors in pronunciation and grammar. Later on we can work on correct pronunciation, but first let us get people talking our languages and this latter aspect is going to take time.

I teach my Cheyenne language on my reservation. I tell my student that for this semester they must learn Cheyenne with me using my inferior Cheyenne, and after they are done they can go home and speak the superior Cheyenne that abounds in their families. I say this to preempt needless discussions on what is the correct way of saying things. Understanding each other is the main criterion for using any language. As a case in point, I remember a snippet of a conversation that I exchanged with one of my Anglo students. I walked out of my office and saw him in the hallway, and I greeted him in Cheyenne. He understood me and answered me appropriately. Just that little conversation justified my efforts during the previous semester. Now we can start building on this verbal exchange. He understood me and I understood him. That was all that was needed.

In my class we do not do any reading or writing. I have to page through my lesson plans in my mind. All I am trying to do is get them to talk. Just talk. That's all I want. Words change; cultures change; social situations change. Consequently, one generation does not speak the same language as the preceding generation. Languages are living, not static. If they are static, then they are beginning to die. When I first heard young Cheyennes speaking Cheyenne a little differently from the way my generation did, I was upset. One little added glottal stop here and there and I thought my whole world was falling apart. It wasn't, and it still hasn't fallen apart. So we must welcome new speakers of our languages to our languages, especially the young ones, and recognize they will continue to shape our languages as they see fit, just as my generation and the generation before mine did.

A sixth idea concerns the fact that even in our rural areas, we are encountering gangs. Our youth are apparently looking to urban gangs for those things that will give them a sense of identity, importance, and belongingness. It would be so nice if they would but look to our own tribal characteristics because we already have all the things that our youth are apparently looking for and finding in socially destructive gangs. We have all the characteristics in our tribal structures that will reaffirm the identities of our youth. Gangs have distinctive colors, clothes, music, heroes, symbols, rituals, and "turf" (our reservations). We American Indian tribes have these too. We have distinctive colors, clothes, music, heroes, symbols, and rituals, and we need to teach our children about the positive aspects of American Indian life at an early age so they know who they are. Perhaps in this way we can inoculate them against the disease of gangs. Another characteristic that really makes a gang distinctive is the language they speak. If we could transfer the young people's loyalty back to our own tribes and families, we could restore the frayed social fabric of our reservations. We need to make our children see our languages and cultures as viable and just as valuable as anything they see on television, movies, or videos.

My last idea is that we must remember that our children are not genetically wired for learning and acquiring our tribal languages. This means that just because our children are born to Cheyenne parents on Cheyenne land and engage in Cheyenne traditional practices does not mean they are automatically predisposed to learning the Cheyenne language. They have to be taught our language. They must learn to speak the Cheyenne language in just the same way they would have to go about acquiring Greek or German or Swahili, especially since for almost all of them English is now their first language. Everybody who works with languages should learn about second language acquisition and the theories buttressing it and be able to apply those theories in whatever subject area they are teaching. Teachers of American Indian languages must remember that everybody has to go through some definite stages of acquiring a language. Right now we have children who are mute in our languages, who are migrants to our languages, who are like extra-terrestrials to our cultures. We have youth who are aliens to us because they do not have the vital linguistic link that identifies them as Cheyenne or whatever tribal group they belong to.

Now, some of these ideas may not be so radical, may not be so rare, but if we can act on them, I think our language preservation programs will be much better off.

In closing I want to relate an experience I had in Alaska. I met Marie Smith, who is the last speaker on earth of the Eyak language. It was truly a profoundly moving experience for me. We talked for about three hours. I felt that I was sitting in the presence of a whole universe of knowledge that could be gone in one last breath. That's how fragile that linguistic universe seemed. It was really difficult for me to stop talking to her because I wanted to remember every moment of our encounter.

Because of that experience, I do not want any more of our languages to have that experience of having that one last speaker. I want all of our languages to last forever, to always be around to nurture our children, to bolster their identities, to perpetuate our cultures.

The Cheyenne language is my language. English is also my language. Yet it is Cheyenne I want to use when my time is completed here on this earth and I journey on to the spirit world. I want to greet in our Cheyenne language those who've journeyed on before me because I know that Cheyenne is the only language they know, the only language they ever needed to know. And I hope when I meet them on the other side that they will understand me and accept me. Thank you for listening to me.


Repatriated Bones, Unrepatriated Spirits
Richard Littlebear

We were brought back.

We were brought back here
to a place we don't know.

We were brought back here
to a place where we left no tracks.

We were brought back here
to a place we've only passed
through when we moved camp
or were hunting,
or were looking for enemies.

We were brought back here
and yet we are lost.

We were brought back
to a place where we are confused.

But now we are starting to sing our songs.
We are singing our songs
that will help us find our way.

We are singing our songs
because we want to rest in peace.

We are singing our songs
so that the people who have been so friendly
to us will also be at rest.

We came back to a people who
look like us but whose language
we do not understand anymore.

Yet we know in our hearts
they are feeling good too, to have
us back here among them.

We are back here now but preparing
to journey on.

We are singing our songs of joy and
we are gradually, gradually becoming happy
knowing we can now travel on
and finally be at rest.

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