Two teachers,one who was beaten for speaking his native language and the other who dealt with cultural prejudice,are fighting to keep their languages from going extinct.
In Fairbanks,Alaska,Professor Walkie Charles,49,who was hit for speaking his parents' language in boarding school,is teaching college students an Eskimo language.
Like many others,Walkie went to the boarding schools made mandatory in 1879 by the U.S. government's Indian policy. The schools used family separation and physical abuse to force Western assimilation as late as the 1970s in Alaska.
In Farmington,N.M.,Barbara Sorensen,45,who has dealt with prejudice for being from two different cultures,is teaching Navajo to high-school students.
“It's who I am,” Sorensen said. “I wanted to be a role model for them. I'm bilingual and bicultural. I feel like I can switch between the two cultures. If I can do that,then they can do that.”
Inee Slaughter,spokeswoman for the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe,N.M.,said 400 to 600 languages were spoken in the U.S. in the 1400s.
Today,linguists estimate there are 175 languages,80 percent of them endangered. By 2010,Slaughter said linguists estimate only 120 will remain.
“When children in the communities are not using the language,that means it's a generation away from endangerment,” she said.
“The dramatic decline began in the late 1800s with the boarding schools and a federal policy for assimilation,” Slaughter said. “The smaller the number of speakers,the less resource there is to turn to for the language information.”
Tribes like the Nambe of New Mexico,which has 400 members and only 10 speakers,are the most at risk.
Slaughter said communities must make a team effort with tribal elders to maintain language.
“There's really no cookie-cutter way in which language can be preserved,” she said.
Charles teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks using a 500-page textbook written by a fellow professor.
“I regard this piece of text almost as I would an elder,” Charles said.
His said his path to becoming a “Elitnaurista,” or teacher,of Yup'ik started in 1970 when he attended the Wrangell Institute Boarding School in Southeastern Alaska.
“I was one of the last kids to get hit for speaking my language,” Charles said. “I tell my story about how I was repulsed about my own languages,so that others didn't know I spoke Yup'ik. … I was trained to feel that way in school.”
He said it hurt him inside. When Charles attended UAF in 1980,he said he was amazed to find courses in Native languages.
Today,just 89 people speak his mother's dialect of Norton Sound Kotlik. The oldest elder died Nov. 25. There are 10,000 fluent Yup'ik speakers.
Sixty students are learning Yup'ik at UAF's Alaska Native Language Center. Six are majors.
“It's very rigorous. It's very theatrical. It's a lot of analysis,” Charles said. “People who have the skills to analyze do very well.”
The center was started in 1972 by the Alaska – three years before Charles completed boarding school. The school kept going because communities didn't have schools for them.
Joel Forbes,19,a UAF Yup'ik and music education major,is one of Charles' students.
Forbes didn't learn how to speak his mother's Bristol Bay Yup'ik.
His mother feared school would be harder for him if he didn't speak English as a first language. His father is from Oregon and doesn't speak Yup'ik.
Forbes said he's learning now because he wants to be able to speak to his grandmother.
“It's in my heritage,” Forbes said. “My older brother who passed on already,he spoke it well. My grandma's a big inspiration to speak Yup'ik. I want to talk to her.”
He said the classes are comparable to math or chemistry.
“You do a lot of adding and subtracting to put the words together,” Forbes said. “It's a whole new point of view. It can help you solve problems.”
Navajo is taught in nearly the same way to children in at the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington,New Mexico.
Sorensen grew up speaking Navajo and was immersed in English in high school. Her childhood made her want to maintain the Navajo language.
She said most of the school's 80 students show great interest in the mandatory language program.
“We go to a trading post in Waterflow,New Mexico,and they will purchase items,and the people that work there,they help us out,” Sorensen said. “They love it.”
April Hale,25,a University of New Mexico journalism graduate who is returning for a bachelor's degree in geography,graduated from the Navajo Prep School. She said her parents made her want to learn Navajo.
“It was quite the learning experience. Both of my parents are fluent in Navajo. So,I grew up in a home where Navajo was spoken,” Hale said.
Her father,Albert,is a former president of the Navajo Nation and is an Arizona state senator. Her mother,Geraldine King,is a teacher.
Her parents spoke Navajo to each other,but not to her. She said neither her parents nor grandparents can read or write in Navajo.
“The whole reading or writing of it is fairly new,” Hale said. “Because there were no textbooks … Navajo Prep designs their own.”
Students spoke Navajo in their dorms. She said the prep school and its language environment make an important contribution to the culture of her generation.
“All too often,Navajo isn't spoken in the home,because our generation's parents went to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking the language,” Hale said. “Language classes – no matter which culture – it's incredibly important to the contribution of sustaining of culture.”
How to help maintain languages
“Unlike hunger or homelessness or disease,people don't see it,but it is threatening the lives of cultures,” said Inee Slaughter,spokeswoman for the Indigenous Language Institute.
It's about helping people to help themselves,she said.
Many tribes offer language workshops and welcome students and those who can teach or help put teaching tools online.
Learn how to speak Alaska's native languages with one word a day,courtesy of Alaska's Native Broadcast Co.