Our Mother Language and the Survival of Native Language As a Whole

Native peoples must demand that their tribal councils adequately fund Native language programs

Ayukîi. yav pamáh’iit. Nani aaréek íimshaapaneech. Naa káruk áraara, káru vúra má’su’araara. Naa káru nani’áraaras kah’tim’îin nu’aramsîiprivti. Pay kúma súpaah naa ôok pa’ítapa hih. Nanu’áxiitichas pananu’árarakuupha nukshúphihi. Pananupíkva, panaupákuriha, pananu’íha nuu uum vúra nuu. Akâayva toopítih “pufaat váhih chúuphansas kári xás pufaat áraaras, vúra áraaras mukun’áxiitichas.” Pa’áxiitichas kunîineesh uum pananukyáviichva. Nixuti koovúra pa’áraars kíri kun’íishipriviti. Panani’óonva káru pananifyíivshas yôotva. Koovúra yôotva.

Good morning. Hello, my name is André. I am a Karuk tribal member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers. I am from the village of Katiimiin. I am here today to speak about language. It is important to teach our children the Native language and traditions (or culture) of our people. It is our stories, songs and dances that make us who we are. Someone once said, “If no one in your tribe speaks the language then you are no longer tribal members but descendants of tribal members.” It is important to pass on what we know to our children. Our future relies on what we teach the next generation. I hope that all of our people continue to grow and achieve great things. Thank you.

That was an introduction to a speech I made to the general membership of the National Indian Education Association a few years back. If you have read my previous columns you know by now I am a fervent supporter of tribal languages. I have always called myself a lottery linguist. If my numbers come up and I win millions I will quit my day job and dedicate myself to learning and teaching the Karuk language.

I’ve been raised speaking English. My mother, who was raised by her Grandmother, heard the Karuk language as part of daily conversation but she had to act as a translator for her elders, so she spoke English primarily. I would spend every summer vacation as a youth with my Great-Aunt and Uncle. They would go around visiting their elders and I got to hear them speaking and joking in our language. That’s how I was able to be around people who spoke only the Karuk language. I love that as soon as they started speaking in the language laughter would shortly follow.

I came to Native language and literacy teaching in 1988 as a founding member of the Karuk Language Restoration Committee (KLRC) which was comprised of Karuk tribal members, and other community people who were interested in learning, teaching, and preserving the language. We’ve met on a regular basis and I’ve been the Chair of the KLRC since 1990.

The KLRC worked with tribal members and the Karuk Tribal Council in the renovation of our Native language in the process of developing projects, classes and services that would become the Karuk language program. For example, we provide direction in curriculum development, policy, and teaching strategies for all tribal members interested in preserving their language heritage and to facilitate the resurgence of our Native language, to restore the language as a tool for viable communication. We helped to pilot the now often used Master/Apprentice teaching model.

As Karuk children were sent to Boarding Schools, they were forbidden to speak the language. The intent was to destroy the healthy core of the Native child. “Kill the Indian save the man.” Restoring our language to daily use is part of our community healing process.

For the tribe, preserving and teaching our language is a major priority. Due to acculturation in English, the daily use of the language has diminished to the point where only 9, maybe 11, elders are considered fluent.

Karuk culture and ceremonies are basically intact and being practiced as a part of peoples’ lives, but correct and effective transmission of culture depends on everyone across the community understanding and speaking the language. Where people don’t personally know the language in use, performing ceremonies becomes a simple recitation, a ritual, and loses its spiritual significance.

The Karuk language is the basis of participating in the daily activities that make up our culture. There are concepts, ideas, prayers and songs for healing that can only be accomplished in our language.

Revitalizing the language is literally revitalizing the health of the Karuk people. The wellness of our community can only be strengthened within the cultural and linguistic context of our ancestors.

The Restoration Committee developed a comprehensive strategic plan in our goal of revitalizing our language. Several areas of concentration have presented themselves:

  1. developing Karuk language teacher assessments to comply with California Assembly Bill 544 and support the teaching of Karuk language within our public schools;
  2. enhancing the Language Program’s online presence to develop and provide content in response to people’s requests, in our Service Area and beyond it; and,
  3. facilitating the creation of an online community for language resources sharing and support.
  4. Hold speaking events (immersion if possible) to bring the community together around language.

With that comprehensive strategic plan in place, the Karuk Language Restoration Committee plans to better meet the needs of the entire tribal membership. We’ll be placing tribally-certified Karuk language teachers in public school instruction; developing and facilitating online learning and virtual communities, and other forums as the 21st Century unfolds.

KLRC members serve on a volunteer basis, because of their dedication to preserving our language. We’re not the typical professionals with a background in board organization – we’re people who are concerned with the future development and use of our language.

The language is the continuum on which our culture rests, in which it exists. It plays an integral role in the cultural, spiritual, physical, and mental health of each individual and also of the community.

As the elders of our tribe cross over, the Native language and culture of our people are lost and this, literally, impacts the overall health of our community. The ability to think, speak, dream and pray in our language is what connects us to our ancestors and cultural heritage. It’s this link that maintains the health and wellness of our Karuk community.

Wellness, for Native people, is based upon the inter-connectedness of culture and that includes our physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional health. Language is the vehicle for passing on our traditional knowledge to future generations.

Native peoples must demand that their tribal councils adequately fund Native language programs. They must give them ongoing support and not just make them rely on the occasional grant. Language is what makes us a Nation and not just a collection of brown people.

Just my two dentalia’s worth.

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