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Eugene Weekly : News : 7.17.08




Endangered Language

Tribal elder to teach Sahaptin at UO

By Victoria Stephens

The UO will be offering an endangered Native American language to its students this fall. At the request of Native American tribes in the state, a two-year series of classes in the Sahaptin language will be added to the curriculum. This is with the hope of supporting and encouraging Native American students and in order to preserve the language of the original people of the Northwest. These courses will qualify for the language requirement for BA students.

Sahaptin and its variants are spoken by the native peoples along the Mid-Columbia River area in Washington and Oregon and are currently spoken on the Umatilla, Colville, Warm Springs and Yakama reservations. 

Virginia Beavert, a Yakama elder and Washington resident, has taught courses in Native American languages since 1970 at various locations and at the UO in condensed summer courses designed to educate teachers the last few years.

“This language I teach is very endangered,” said Beavert, an 86-year-old linguistics doctoral student and expert in Sahaptin, selected to teach the upcoming series in the fall.

While studying at the University of Arizona, Beavert took Japanese linguistics taught by a full blood Navaho teacher. This helped her know how to look at the structure of her own language. “Teaching a different language to anyone can

make them aware of the structure of their language,” she said. Sahaptin is just one of several Native American languages that Beavert speaks.

 Native American language teachers are selected by their tribe to become certified by the state and take a two- to three-week immersion course in Sahaptin in order to teach the language. A fluent speaker of the language is selected to attend the workshop and a letter of recommendation is submitted by the tribal leaders to the Teacher Standards Practices Commission for the specialized certification, which is required in order to be able to teach in the public schools.

Jeff Magoto, director of the UO’s Yamada Language Center, said their World Language Academy is an “incubator for newer language studies.” He said the fall program for the Sahaptin language series “has the buy-in of all the tribes within the state for support and approval.” This is no small feat, as the teaching of any native language to those outside the tribe is “not without controversy.”

Concerns among tribal members include proper regard being given to the culture and that a respectful climate is ensured. There are spiritual aspects to be considered as well, and resentment over what has been done

with Native American languages in U.S. history.

Previously restricted to native teachers selected by the tribe, and then opened up with an aim of appealing to Native American students on campus, the Sahaptin language course will be open to any student wishing to learn a second language, in an effort to preserve the endangered language and culture of the indigenous people of the region.

At this point, “we just need people to learn the language in order for it to survive,” said Beavert.

The Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI) traces its beginning to a tribal request made to the UO in 1997 for assistance in developing linguistic and language training for native languages, according to Director Janne Underriner. The NILI mission is to help tribes preserve their language through linguistic and other academic language assessment and documentation, and by establishing collaborative projects such as this one. 

Tony Johnson, who works with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and serves on the advisory committee of tribal language speakers with Virginia Beavert and Brenda Frank of the Klamath Tribe, teaches Chinuk Wawa at LCC. Chinuk Wawa is the native trade language of the Pacific Northwest used by merchants and farmers, which he learned from his great uncles and aunts and his grandfather’s best friend. 

While describing Sahaptin he said, “these languages are extremely complex.” A few words can convey multiple sentences in English, according to Johnson. “That’s where our difficulty comes in teaching,” he added.

Sahaptin is a polysynthetic language, which “even baffles linguists,” according to Beavert. Such languages are composed of one-word sentences used to communicate entire ideas with words such as ipinasapáwiisklika, which means “S/he turned him/herself around.” 

The stress accent is very important to the meaning of the word in Sahaptin. For example, pamtá means bullfrog and pámta means paternal uncle.

The alphabet is designed to use basic American characters and has a few special characters to convey sounds not used in the English language.

Beavert recently received a Distinguished Service Award presented by the UO for her life’s work and contribution to the preservation of the Sahaptin language, tribal stories, legends and other cultural treasures that otherwise would have been lost without her diligent efforts to revive them. 

“This is why we have this program, because our language is dying out with our elders,” she said.