Sunday, April 11, 2010

Resurrecting a language

In speaking the word for owl, Bud Lane, one of about 10 remaining and fluent Athabaskan speakers, reveals the importance of saving languages.

When spoken aloud, the word, svs-tee-lii-chu, starts out quietly, progresses to a drawn out, almost surreptitious emphasis on the “lii” syllable and finishes quickly. It gives the listener a sense that owls are best spoken about in whispers, lest the speaker draw the attention of one.

“Most Siletz people don’t even want to see an owl,” said Lane, a member of the Siletz Nation. “It’s a scary thing.”

The English translation of the word reveals more. Svs-tee-lii-chu means “the big cold one.” Historically, Siletz people considered sighting the bird of prey an omen foreshadowing bad luck, and at the very least, a reason for pause or concern. While the roots of the owl’s symbolism have been lost over the last 10,000 years, Lane suspects it’s due to the raptor’s nocturnal nature.

“Long ago our people did not go outside at night, unless it was necessary,” Lane said.

Spoken aloud, svs-tee-lii-chu carries forth all of the owl’s significance and history with the Siletz people on the space between breaths.

That’s a partial history of one word. Lane is helping to create a repository for the Athabaskan language that already contains 12,000.

How a language dies

One factor overwhelmingly contributes to the death of a language: perception.

“Speakers of an eroding language tend to speak it less and less. Traditionally, these speakers are viewed by people outside their communities as foreigners, and within their communities as the last holdouts to a more progressive way of life,” Greg Anderson, executive director of the Salem-based Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, said.

Anderson travels the world tracking down the speakers of dying language to either salvage what remains, or as he has done with Athabaskan, help create materials that will enable new generations to learn the language. He’s a busy man: by most estimates, another language dies every two weeks.

Lane said people within the Siletz tribe have often revered speakers of older Athabaskan dialects, but he has worked directly with elders who succumbed to the pressures of the broader culture and had ceased to use the language at all outside the immediate Native American community.

While much of Lane’s knowledge of Athabaskan comes from growing up around people who spoke it, he was in his 20s before making an earnest effort to learn everything he could about it. Nellie Orton, one of the Siletz elders, became a primary source.

Born in the early 1900s, Orton carried in her veins rich deposits of Siletz culture. She had been crippled as a child and spent much of her time indoors with elders absorbing their stories, language, dances and practices. But by the time Lane got to know her, she wasn’t speaking the language publicly.

“She got stung by public perception. It’s sort of the same thing that we see happening now with Spanish speakers. That negative perception was more devastating than anything else that the language faced,” Lane said.

But to trace the roots of Athabaskan’s slow decline, it’s important to look back even further.

Beginning around 1850, the land inhabited by Native American tribes from the Cascades in the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west and from the Columbia River down to just below the California border (approx. 20 million acres) was ceded to the US in a series of treaties. The treaties called for the creation of a permanent reservation, which eventually ended up as two separate reservations – Siletz and Grande Ronde. Siletz became the collection site for as many as 10 different dialects of the Athabaskan languages.

To communicate among the various dialects, the tribe members formed a language of common jargon, dubbed Chinuk Wawa. Chinuk Wawa soon became the dominant language, but even that eventually gave way to English. Athabaskan, a language that once flourished through many dialects, was slowly choked off to a barely perceptible trickle of new speakers.

“By the 1990s, the numbers were so low, probably less than 50, that we noticed every single death of Athabaskan speakers,” Lane said.

Presently, there are about 10 speakers left within the former 20 million acres who could have a conversation in Athabaskan.

Lane is one of four speakers remaining within the Siletz Nation.

How a language is saved

Dance led the push to save the Athabaskan language.

One of the keys to understanding Siletz culture, or any culture, is to understand that nothing happens in isolation. Language is formed around daily life, life revolves around the environments in which we live, and artistic and cultural expression – such as art, song and dance – is a product of environment and language.

“Some of the others in my generation were looking to revive our tribal dances. That was how it started, the songs used in our dances were sung in Athabaskan,” Lane said.

The dance revival happened more than 20 years ago, but the formal effort to preserve Athabaskan didn’t begin until 2003 when Lane was recruited from a career with Georgia-Pacific to design and implement a curriculum that produced new speakers.

“It had reached a critical mass and we realized if we didn’t do something soon, it would go away,” Lane said.

The task was an enormous undertaking given the rich history of Athabaskan and its many dialects. So he started small.

“You need to know everyday greetings and terms to make language functional. You start thinking in human practicality. Language can’t be an antique that you tuck away and never use. I could go on and on about our creation stories, but it doesn’t tell you anything that allows you to talk to another person across a table,” Lane said.

He began by producing CDs with collections of nouns, numbers, colors and verbs. Lane was uniquely suited for the task. Prior to his generation the language had only very rarely been written down. He and others were some of the first to develop a structure for writing Athabaskan.

He was aided in his task by resource materials that, according to Lane, would “knock your socks off.”

“For the past 100 years we’ve had people coming through recording our language and stories who were utterly convinced we would be the last of our people,” he said.

Lane grew his one-man show into a team of individuals working to create the mechanisms that give the language a chance of persevering. Teacher Joe Scott and administrative assistant Cova St. Ong, both tribal members, as well as Anderson who works in a consulting capacity, have increased the scope of the project.

Scott has helped to create a curriculum for students in Head Start through fifth grade. A student who completes the entire curriculum could be as fluent as any high school student with four years of a foreign language under their belt. Lane travels to both Salem and Portland to teach students unable to attend school in Siletz. Plans are in motion to put the entire curriculum, as well as a talking dictionary, online for tribal members in other areas to develop their Athabaskan skills.

Anderson said he wouldn't be surprised to see the program cultivate two new fluent Athabaskan speakers. It's a modest goal, but even that would be far better than the chances of other dying languages he's worked with.

In developing the teaching materials, both Scott and Lane have learned more about their forbears.

For Scott, it’s been interesting to gain a fuller understanding of the philosophical differences between western education and traditional teaching techniques and standards of Native American societies.

“In Western models of teaching, success is measured based on individual performance. For Native Americans, group achievement is more important,” Scott said.

Athabaskan can also be a difficult language to parse for those who haven’t lived within the boundaries of its once-great range.

“It’s really a language tied to this place and everything people here experienced. We didn’t have horses in this area originally, so the Athabaskan word for horse translates into ‘big dog.’ Lots of things are also called by the same name and the meaning depends on the context,” Scott said.

For Lane, gaining a greater understanding of Athabaskan has increased the richness with which he experiences the world. A particularly meaningful phrase for Lane is “nvn-nvst-‘an’,” which translates as “for you it is made.” It is the word used for the earth and all that comes from it.

“There was time when all this stuff was made for you. Nothing was a throw away plant or what colonial culture calls a “weed.” The two views of the world are night and day. When we walk through this land we see cedar and spruce trees as basket material. Maple trees supply bark for a bark dress. Willow trees provide bark for medicine, skunk cabbage can be used for food and medicine. Everything has a role somehow or some way,” Lane said.

Use it or lose it

On a cool June evening, Siletz tribal members and their guests enter a plank house near the river, turning around 360 degrees as they enter, an acknowledgment of entering a sacred place.

It’s the third night of the Siletz Nation’s solstice dances, and a fire blazes in a pit in the center of the structure. Glowing embers float high, drawn up through the draft of the open-air vent in the ceiling. Lane begins to sing ancient songs of prayer. As he sings, Siletz children take turns dancing around the fire pit as their shadows dance with them across walls and the faces of those in attendance.

This is where language and culture are married into a single entity; neither part can be extracted from another.

“All of it ties together in the dances and it melts together in a big thank you,” Lane said.

Twenty years ago few people in the audience would have much understanding of the words Lane speaks, but that’s changing now.

“People out there know them and understand them. Each year I do this, I’m seeing more and more lights come on,” he said.

It’s “huu-chan.”

Huu-chan can mean different things from “blessing,” to “beautiful,” to “sunny weather” to “cool.” But no matter the context, it always means something "good."

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