UO, federal initiative to aid revitalization of native languages

Alphabet chart of the Tututni language

A groundbreaking partnership between the University of Oregon and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will help indigenous communities in Oregon and beyond build and sustain community-based programs aimed at saving endangered languages.

“For these communities and these languages, learning situations need to be very intentionally designed,” said Janne Underriner, co-founder and director of UO’s Northwest Indian Language Institute. “Learners need time, they need settings, they need rich learning materials.”

Through a new memorandum of understanding, the institute will partner with the federal Administration for Native Americans to extend their current training and instruction programs for UO students and NILI Summer Institute participants to develop sustainable community-based programs aimed at revitalizing endangered languages.

It’s the first time the administration, which generally provides grant funding to eligible tribes and native organizations, has entered into this kind of partnership with a nonnative institution of higher education, the project’s sponsors said.

“NILI is recognized as a national leader in the research and revitalization of indigenous languages,” said Dan Van Otten, the federal agency's training manager for the 11-state Western Region and a Cayuse descendent whose work with Oregon’s tribal and urban-Indian communities spans decades.

For more than 20 years, the UO language institute, a research operation in the Office of the Provost, has provided training in applied linguistics to Native American language teachers of Northwest tribes. The institute also partners with tribes in the areas of language program design, language documenting and archiving, curriculum and assessment development, linguistic policy and grant writing.

In 2019-20, the new initiative will allocate staff time and resources from the federal agency’s Western Region Training and Assistance Center to foster project planning and development skills in UO students who are working to revitalize native languages.

During winter term, Van Otten will join Underriner in the classroom to co-teach a linguistics department seminar on project planning and development for community-based language immersion. They have also engaged with UO’s Native American Student Union, the Native Strategies Group and faculty members in the Department of Linguistics for collaboration in developing community-based coursework and resources.

“I hope we are moving from language learning — memorizing, recognizing and basic conversation — and moving into language acquisition, focused on truly immersing people in their language,” Van Otten said.

Underriner, who thas taught the Chinuk Wawa language since 2006, explained that the relative scarcity of immersive learning opportunities is a key factor contributing to the critical endangerment of many indigenous languages worldwide, including those in Oregon.

“If someone wants to learn Spanish or French, it’s very helpful that you can go spend time in Madrid or Lyon,” she said. “I can go to Sweden, be with my family and hear all kinds of conversations in my language. But for learners and teachers of tribal languages, there is no other place outside the classroom that many of these languages are spoken. The challenge is, how do we create these kinds of vital opportunities for immersion time?”

Myra Johnson-Orange, a resident elder and chairperson of the Cultural Heritage Committee of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, has helped to develop revitalization programs for the three indigenous languages spoken in her community. She shared her childhood memories of language immersion in the home, but she also pointed to the history of colonialism and forced assimilation that disrupted traditional modes of teaching and learning.

“Numu is the language of the Northern Paiute people, my grandmother’s language," she said. "I was raised with my grandmother who was full-blood Paiute and she would always talk in her language. Her sister lived in the same home and they always spoke the Paiute language, and they spoke it with people who came to visit from other places like Burns and Nevada. But she never taught me, mostly because she said I needed to learn to speak the language of the white people in order to converse diplomatically and defend myself.”

Johnson-Orange’s grandmother had grown up in the oppressive era of Indian boarding schools, when Native American children were widely forbidden from speaking their languages or engaging in traditional practices. Following World War II, federal termination policies further disrupted the ability of native peoples to preserve and pass along their cultural heritage.

Along with Numu, more than 25 distinct languages and scores of dialects existed in Oregon prior to first contact with European peoples. Today, only nine of these languages are still spoken, and all but a small coterie of the truly fluent speakers are tribal elders.

Language notes taken at Siletz Reservation in the 1880s

Underriner recounted, “We are fortunate to have on our faculty Virginia Beavert, who was raised and educated in a very traditional Yakama household by her great grandparents, didn’t learn to speak English until she was at least 6, and is fluent in six dialects of her (Sahaptin, or Ichishkiin) language. She co-wrote the first Yakama Ichishkiin dictionary and is probably responsible for saving her grandparents' language from extinction. Dr. Beavert is 97.”

With impetus from the partnership and engagement of many stakeholders and community members, Underriner and Van Otten now hope to take the next critical steps in helping to train and empower a new generation of language activists and revitalists.

“It used to be the voice of the elders, but more and more we are listening to youth,” said Underriner. “Kids can learn to use all the contents taught in the classroom, but how can we encourage them to keep using this language with each other when they walk out the school door?”

Despite the challenges, Van Otten believes that the rewards of preserving and revitalizing languages are overwhelming.

“If you are interested in enriching yourself by learning about other cultures, if you believe that there is some value in multiplicity rather than uniformity, then I believe the answer is pretty easy: Language is the heart of a culture.”

“In our languages, you can say one word that means a paragraph in English," Johnson-Orange said. "What we’ve discovered is, the cultural knowledge within our language and our way of life is our value system. Our language is a way of transmitting feelings or values, not just a way of communicating ideas.”

—By Jason Stone, University Communications