Universities partner to save dying languages

By Diane Smith
Arlington, Texas (AP) June 2011

Hutke Fields pictures a time when younger generations of Natchez people use his tribe’s native tongue at ceremonies, while sharing oral histories and during everyday talk at home.

But Field’s vision is complicated by the fact that only six people, out of about 10,000 members of the Natchez tribe in Oklahoma, still speak the language.

“We’ll lose it if we don’t use it,” said Fields, who received assistance last year during a workshop dedicated to helping American Indian communities in Oklahoma to bring back disappearing languages.

Fields is a participant in the Breath of Life project – a joint effort by experts from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Oklahoma – in which linguists mentor American Indians so they can better recover endangered languages.

It is modeled after a project at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We are growing field linguists,” said Colleen Fitzgerald, associate professor and chairwoman of UT Arlington’s Linguistics Department. “We are transferring knowledge to community members so they can teach their own languages.”

The first workshop was held in summer 2010 at OU in Norman, Okla., which is also the site of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Members of three American Indian communities took part: the Osage, Otoe and Natchez.

Linguists and American Indians will be able to work together again next May. The project recently got a funding boost that will allow for a second workshop, Fitzgerald said.

The project team received a total of $90,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that helps support research at colleges and universities.

The grant is spread over two years.

Besides training American Indian community members to be linguists on the ground, UT Arlington will be working to create linguistic databases that will ultimately enable the creation of online dictionaries and collections of texts in various languages, Fitzgerald said.

Each community will have a database which will also be stored in a repository at the Noble museum.

Oklahoma was described as a “hot spot” of linguistic diversity by experts in National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project, said Mary Linn, associate curator of American Indian languages at the Noble museum and an associate professor of anthropology at OU.

As North America was settled by whites, many tribes were forced to move to Oklahoma. As a result, there is not only a great deal of linguistic diversity, but also high levels of language endangerment, Linn said.

The languages grew even more endangered as American Indians assimilated to English-speaking culture that dominates society.

“It’s hard to resist shifting to English,” Linn said, adding that many small tribes picked up the languages of larger tribes.

Today, language sleuths rely on tribal records, grammar and alphabets that were often chronicled by missionaries, military generals and tribes. President Thomas Jefferson also collected word lists, Linn said.

Fields said the project allowed his community to computerize a dictionary and research. Now, Natchez people in South Carolina can practice with their Natchez friends in Oklahoma. This also allows Natchez histories to flow more readily from elders who still tell of their contributions to America as farmers expert in corn and beans.

Their histories tell of a people displaced from the Gulf Coast and of deaths from influenza that followed early encounters with European explorers.

“I grieve daily over the loss of cultural values,” said Fields, principal chief for the tribe. “It takes a community and economy and people who want to preserve.”




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