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Keeping native languages alive

Umatilla program aspires to link youth to their lingual roots

The Columbian
Published: September 14, 2013, 5:00pm

Tribal members living in the Pendleton Round-Up’s teepee village stopped, listened and peeked their heads west when Carina Vasquez-Minthorn sang the national anthem at Thursday’s Happy Canyon Night Show.

Vasquez-Minthorn, 20, a Happy Canyon princess, sang in the Umatilla language for the first time at the show. Some cried, others clapped and cheered.

“She hadn’t told me she was going to sing in Umatilla,” Vasquez-Minthorn’s grandmother Marjorie Waheneka said. “I was telling everyone, ‘That’s Carina, that’s Carina!'”

Like many native languages, the Nez Perce language and Sahaptin language group — including Umatilla and Walla Walla — are no longer the mother tongues of most tribal members. Government boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries forbid tribal members from speaking their native language, and for many years tribal members focused less on their own verse and more on becoming masters of English.

But with the loss of language comes loss of culture. All the nuances of explaining something, all the different words for plants, elk, deer and salmon, help infuse tradition and values into a person, interpreter Thomas Morning Owl explained. Morning Owl teaches language at Nixyaawii Community School and helped develop the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s language program.

“You’re building a whole new person when you teach a language to someone,” said Morning Owl, who translated the Star Spangled Banner for Vasquez-Minthorn to sing at the 100th Round-Up in 2010. “I figure, get it out there, get it out there. If I die and I have kept the language in my head, I steal it from the future generations.”

Only about five Walla Walla native speakers are alive today, and about 50 native Umatilla speakers.

In the last few decades, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has had a language program to help get back to its lingual roots.

There are six full-time language instructors. Nixyaawii Community School has offered Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce language classes for the last decade. A Cay-Uma-Wa Head Start program is being developed to reach children while they’re young. There are online video resources and the Tamaluut immersion school, a new language immersion program for 3-to-5-year-olds.

“We need to teach the language while the speakers are still here, (while) they’re still alive,” Vasquez-Minthorn said.

“Taymusiya” is what the Columbia River languages now call “cellphones.” It comes from a story about a little black cloud that sees where everyone goes. “Wiyatimasha,” or “going along and writing,” is texting.

The modern words are a mark of a living, growing language.

“I tell my students, don’t be afraid of it,” Morning Owl said. “The language is not mine. It is theirs to do what they want with it.”

A living history coordinator at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, Waheneka sees a fizzling of many young people’s motivation to learn the language.

“In the end, it is up to the individual to keep that going,” she said.

Like her parents and grandparents, Waheneka would speak to her three boys at dinner time in the Columbia River languages.

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Waheneka explained that like shelter, food and clothing, language is integral to a community.

“Our elders say if you don’t know your culture, your history, your language, you don’t know who you are,” Waheneka said.