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Reprinted with permission of the author, this article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of NATIVE AMERICAS, pp. 60-61.
Jon Reyhner, ed., Teaching Indigenous Languages (Flagstaff, Arizona: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University, 1997. 324 pp.)
Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantom, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, Revitalizing Native Languages (Flagstaff, Arizona: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University, 1999. 140 pp.)
Taiaiake Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1999. 146 pp. with notes)
Native Languages: The New Phoenix
Bruce E. Johansen
These two books were developed from a series of symposia on teaching indigenous languages held annually since 1994. The symposia attracted roughly 300 people a year to Northern Arizona University, where the meetings were sponsored by its Multicultural Education Program, a subdivision of the university's Center for Excellence in Education. The books celebrate the rediscovery of language with a sense of joy. Language-immersion training has become one of the hottest educational tickets in Indian Country -- so unlike the somber purge of Native languages and cultures delivered by General Pratt's boarding schools a century ago.
The emphasis on language revival is arriving barely in time for some Native American languages, particularly those which have reached "stage eight" of Joshua A. Fishman's "eight stages of language loss." Stage eight is a critical stage of loss when only a few elders speak the tongue which once served an entire people.
Julia Kushner, one of the contributors to Revitalizing Indigenous Languages, cites studies indicating that 90 percent of the 175 Native languages which survived General Pratt's cultural gauntlet have no child speakers. (Revitalizing Languages, p. 81) That figure dates from the mid1990s. Elsewhere in the book, speakers mourn the continuing loss of several languages, more than a dozen of which lost their last living speakers during the first half of the 1990s alone.
These two books present concrete, tested strategies for preserving Native languages as living tools of culture in daily life. Fishman's landmark book, Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages, published in 1991 in the United Kingdom, is cited throughout these two volumes.
The reach of language revivals described in these books is worldwide; lessons and examples are freely borrowed from the Maori of New Zealand, who have had an active language revival program for several decades. The New Zealand government has maintained a Maori Language Commission since 1987. These two books also describe Native peoples' efforts to revive their languages in Australia and Northern Africa.
In Revitalizing Indigenous Languages, editor Jon Reyhner stresses the need to use a revitalized language as a living tool to teach academic subjects, not as a "second language." The language must be restored to its place in everyday life of a people, he believes. This belief is widely shared.
These two books do a balanced job on the controversial question in Native language revitalization studies over whether revived languages should be written, or solely oral. Some language activists point out that many Native languages were first committed to writing by missionaries seeking, as Reyhner writes, "to translate their Bible and convert Natives from their traditional religions.,, (Revitalizing Languages, p. xiii) These two volumes present a wide range of programs which have evolved locally, some in opposition to earlier efforts at written languages by church-affiliated programs, and others which have grown out of the same type of programs. While some of the programs strive to maintain an emphasis on spoken language to the exclusion of written communication, others emphasize production of written bilingual sources in the Native language to be revived, as well as in English. Some of the programs use computers extensively, while others avoid them as a culturally inappropriate intrusion.
Fishman himself comes down squarely on the side of literacy: "Unless they are entirely withdrawn from the modern world, minority ethnolinguistic groups need to be literate in their mother tongue (as well as in some language of wider communication.)" (Revitalizing Language, p. 38)
The often-disputed distinction between oral and literate language may be culturally artificial, because many Native American cultures possessed forms of written communication, even if many European immigrants did not recognize them as such. From the wampum belts of the Haudenosaunee, to the illustrated codices of the Aztecs and Maya, to the winter counts of the Plains, written communication was used in America long before Columbus. Reyhner quotes H. Russell Bernard, as he urges Native Americans to establish publishing houses. (Revitalizing Languages, p. xiii)
Language revival also is being used in some cases to encourage the expression of Native oral histories, in both written and spoken forms, as well as musical expression. Some teachers of language are finding that music is an effective way to introduce young students to languages and cultural heritage. "Why music?" asks Amar Almasude, who writes about language revival in Northern Africa: "It is perhaps the best vehicle for becoming acquainted with humans. It is the expression that is pervasive. In songs, human society is portrayed and everyday experiences are reflected. Their themes are usually social issues and historical events, including national and religious feasts and holidays.... Thus, music is a fundamental element in human life." (Revitalizing Languages, p. 121)
These two books present precise descriptions and examples from teachers who have been involved in a wide variety of language-revival programs, from several Native bands in British Columbia, to the Cheyenne, Yaqui, Arapaho and Navajo. While describing individual programs, these books also sketch the common pedagogical essentials basic to all language-revitalization efforts,
Reyhner suggests use of the "3 M's" of language revitalization: methods, materials and motivation."
"Methods deal with what teaching techniques will be used at what age levels and stages of language loss. Materials deal with what things will be available for teachers and learners to use, including audiotapes, videotapes, storybooks, dictionaries, grammars, textbooks and computer software. Motivation deals with increasing the prestige (including giving recognition and awards to individuals and groups who make special efforts) and usefulness of the indigenous language in the community, and using teaching methods that learners enjoy, so they will come back for more indigenous language instruction." (Revitalizing Languages, p. xviii)
Language must become a familiar part of a student's life; immersion specialists believe that 600 to 700 hours of such contact is necessary to acquire the kind of fluency which allows for transmission of culture from generation to generation.
These two books are a treasure-trove of linguistic innovation, describing how Native languages are being revitalized in some ways which are very old, and in others which use modern technology to extend the reach of oral cultures. In Mexico, traditional Aztec "Danza" (dance) is being used to teach classical Nahuatl. The dances are part of an eighteen-ceremony ecological calendar, so, while learning students also absorb some knowledge of Aztec history and culture. These ceremonies deal with "rain, germination, ripening of corn, war victory, hunting and [the] tribal dead," comment authors of a study on "revenacularizing" classical Nahuatl through Aztec dance. The authors list the intertwined benefits of this approach, by which students acquire not only knowledge of language, but also, "Nahua [Aztec] history from an indigenous perspective, a deeper understanding of Danza steps, creation myths, [and the] making and playing of indigenous [musical] instruments." (Teaching Indigenous Languages, p. 71)
In Alaska, a number of Deg Hit'an (Ingalik Athabasken) people have been teaching each other their language, Deg Xinag, over the telephone, using conference calls. Telephone technology allows widely dispersed speakers of the language to create a space to practice their skills, and to teach each other new phrases and words. Phone conferences are hardly immersive (since the calls last only an hour a week), but language is being taught. Callers have joined the conversations from as far away as Seattle.
In a similar vein, KTNN AM 660, the Navajo Nation's official radio station, has been making plans to offer instruction in the Navajo language over the air. In this way, the Navajo are sharing the language via the communications media of their community. "The Voice of the Navajo Nation," as KTNN is called, has a signal that reaches from Albuquerque to Phoenix.
These two books already have helped to stimulate language revival in many areas by providing a forum for a wide range of ideas. General Pratt would be surprised at how completely his set of educational assumptions have been changed, now that educators are no longer, "killing the Indian to save the man."
Bruce E. Johansen is a Robert T. Reilly Professor of Communication and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.