North America’s nearly forgotten language

October 3rd, 2018 by Even before I saw the water, I heard the rumble. Sounding like a river or a waterfall, the noise was gently muffled by the sword ferns and step moss as it reverberated through the sky-scraping red cedars and Douglas firs. What I was hearing was not a river, and if I’d come along this trail an hour earlier or later, I’d have heard nothing at all. I was visiting the Skookumchuck Narrows, one of Canada’s most famous tidal rapids, which are located a ferry ride north-west of Vancouver at the head of Sechelt Inlet on the Sunshine Coast. On a 3m tide as much as 760,000,000 cubic metres of water passes through the narrows, creating imposing white-water rapids that diminish to calm water four times a day as the tide turns. But the reason I was here was not to marvel at the daring kayakers as they surfed the standing waves. Instead, I had come to ask about the name of the place. Like many from British Columbia, I grew up with an easy familiarity with a handful of strange words. They were terms I always thought were common English, but they turned out to be unknown beyond the boundaries of my Pacific Coast home. I later learned that words like potlatch, saltchuck, kanaka, skookum, sticks, muckamuck, tyee and cultus were from a near-forgotten language that was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for almost 200 years. Known as Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa (‘wawa’ meaning talk), this was a trade, or pidgin, language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English. It was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905. Some Chinook Wawa still exists in place names and slang, but the meanings are so deeply buried in Pacific Northwest culture that the words come with more of a feeling than a definition, and most residents can’t say which language the terms evolved from. Curious what these visitors to the Skookumchuck Narrows might know about the site’s name, I waited for a Vancouver kayaker named Jill to step away from the furious water, then asked if she knew what Skookum means. Almost in chorus, an entire crowd of kayakers answered. “It means awesome. Big and awesome.” And chuck, I asked? “That’s the ocean,” they replied. They’re not entirely correct – historically, skookum meant strong or impressive, and chuck meant water (saltchuck meant the sea), but once words become part of a local lingo they can change with time. When I asked if they knew where the word Skookumchuck comes from, there was a puzzled silence. Finally Jill answered. “I think it comes from here,” she said, gesturing toward the rocky cliffs and dense green forest. Read more: BBC

Saving languages

June 12th, 2017 by An entire community had cause to celebrate when 11 Six Nations Polytechnic students graduated with the first bachelor of arts degree in Ogwehoweh languages. "It's been a long road to get here, involving countless people over many years of hard work, long hours of curriculum development, and not to mention weeks of studying by each student, but we finally made it," Rebecca Jamieson, CEO and president of Six Nations Polytechnic, told about 100 people gathered this week in the Ohsweken school's main hall. In front of family, community elders and school faculty, seven students were conferred with degrees in Cayuga and four with degrees in Mohawk during a ceremony conducted in Mohawk, Cayuga and English. Also present were Six Nations elected Chief Ava Hill and several Six Nations councillors, and Brantford councillors John Utley and Richard Carpenter. Jamieson traced the path from 2012 when the school began work to mount the unique degree program to 2015 when it was accepted by the provincial government. Then she lauded the students for taking their places in the frontlines in effort reclaim the traditional six languages of the Ogwehoweh people. Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Seneca are the other four. They are languages that a report by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) says are critically endangered and could be lost. Read more: The Brantford Expositor

To save their dying language, the Arapaho turn to high-tech apps, old-school flash cards and a new generation

April 26th, 2017 by When Marlin Spoonhunter returned to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming after decades working as an educator in Montana, he realized that something crucial, something elemental to his Northern Arapaho identity, had escaped him — the language. “When I’d hear older people talking, I didn’t know what they were saying,” says Spoonhunter, now president of the Wind River Tribal College in Ethete. “I wanted to know.” For generations, the tribe has been leaning into cultural headwinds to preserve a language on the brink of extinction. As English gained dominance in daily discourse, fluent Arapaho speakers dwindled to what’s now estimated to be perhaps a few dozen — most of those in their 70s — among the slightly more than 10,000 registered tribal members in Wyoming. But faced with losing one of its defining elements, a living institution that extends beyond words to a unique way of looking at the world, the tribe has turned to a variety of resources — including a University of Colorado Boulder linguistics professor — with increased urgency to reverse the trend. It has embraced websites, phone apps and video tutorials along with classroom immersion and personal mentoring to renew a native tongue essential to its culture, religion and worldview. Read more: The Denver Post

University of Toronto professors fight to save dying Indigenous languages

February 12th, 2017 by The Indigenous language Ryan DeCaire is fighting to save isn't one he spoke regularly — or fluently — while growing up on Wahta Mohawk territory. "People [with Mohawk ancestry] are saying words like, 'hello', 'goodbye', 1,2,3' but is that all there is?," DeCaire asked himself. The questions spurred him to realize that the only people who spoke fluent Mohawk were elders in the community and that time is running out to preserve the language. "If we don't do something about that, we're probably going to witness [the language's] death in my own lifetime." DeCaire is now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Centre for Indigenous Studies. The faculty focuses on teaching Indigenous history, language and customs to students. Read more: CBC News

One of the world’s oldest languages teaches hidden life lessons

February 11th, 2017 by If, a few millennia ago, you had been hunting a woolly mammoth, you would have discussed your plan of attack in a version of a language that is still alive today—though just barely. Ojibwe language expert James Vukelich (Kaagegaabaw) visited Stillwater Public Library in January to share some of that language with attendees of the Native American Parent Advisory Committee’s latest education session. Vukelich, who works as an indigenous language specialist for Minneapolis Public Schools, has spent years working to record and preserve the ancient Ojibwe language, which has been passed through generations of indigenous North American people since the Ice Age. Instilled in that language are the basic teachings of the Ojibwe philosophy and way of life. This concept is also known as “The Seven Generations.” The Seven Generations is a belief held by not only Ojibwe people, but a number of indigenous tribes. Vukelich said that the Ojibwe language is as different from Dakota as German is from Chinese, yet this concept of seven generations is shared across those tribal differences. It teaches that every action a person takes will have an impact on the next seven generations that follow. Read more: The Lowdown - St. Croix Valley Area

North America’s native languages get higher education boost

December 15th, 2016 by Among the many institutions in North America that memorialise the native population is Miami University in Ohio, named after the Miami tribe that once spread from the state across vast sections of what is now the United States. It is an ironic tribute considering the treatment of the Miami people, who were attacked by whites as the frontier pushed west, and whose lands were also taken. Now, universities including Miami are in the vanguard of work to restore one of the principal cultural relics of indigenous tribes: their languages. The efforts are made amid high-profile modern-day battles, from the contentious dispute over the names of professional sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, that many consider offensive, to the fight involving the Sioux tribe over the $3.8 billion (£3 billion) Dakota Access oil pipeline. “There’s a heightened awareness and things are changing on the national level, especially with the recognition of the global loss of small minority languages and what that means to society as a whole,” said Daryl Baldwin, director of Miami University’s Myaamia Center, which offers courses on native culture and language. Read more: Times Higher Education