Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NAT: Quileute

Non-Native teaching Quileute tongue-twisting language
By Jim Casey, Peninsula Daily News

LAPUSH — Every word spoken in Quileute breathes new life into the ancient Native American language.

That's the perception of anthropologist Jay Powell, who has taught two five-week "crash courses" in Quileute — properly pronounced Kwil-LAY-yute — at LaPush and who hopes to teach two more.

Without energetic efforts by tribal members and their teacher, the language could disappear.

Three, perhaps four, people can speak Quileute fluently.

When they are gone, all that remains will be phrases, greetings, ceremonies and songs.

Even those could vanish if it weren't for the tribe's hiring Powell to help teach and record the language.

Powell and his wife, Vickie Jensen, have worked with the outer coastal tribe since 1968, when 50 Quileute could speak their native language fluently — and the 600 other tribal members could not.

Powell's efforts also have helped the tribe publish its first book, a dictionary that is expected to be released today to tribal members.

Speakers passed away
"They heard it in ceremonies, and everybody knew a few words," Powell said during a recent stop in Port Angeles on his way from LaPush to his home in British Columbia.

But over the next 40 years, "those 50 speakers grew old and started to die until they were about to lose an irretrievable part of their cultural heritage."

Chris Morganroth III, Quileute tribal councilman, Wednesday said, "Once a tribe loses its language, it loses its identity."

Along with the language, he said, the tribe stood to lose "many legends and stories about how we came to be here."

Morganroth recalled his grandmother, who spoke only Quileute to her family.

"I was really fortunate to grow up in the way I did," he said.

'Turns tongue to Jell-O'
To the untutored ear, Quileute sounds like it is spoken in the back of the throat and the base of the tongue with breath pushed up from the speaker's diaphragm.

"They have a sounds system that turns your tongue to Jell-O," is how Powell put it, with words as long as 40 syllables that incorporate what in English would be whole sentences.

"It is such a beautiful sequence of tones," said James Jaime, the tribe's executive director. "I love listening to it."

Powell began his involvement with the tribe when, as a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, he was offered a chance to study native languages up and down the north Pacific coast.

"I was lucky enough to be taken on by one of the last Quileute speakers — Fred "Woody" Woodruff — who had the patience and perseverance to teach me the language."

Punished for speaking
The loss of the language had been accelerated by the practice at boarding schools for Native Americans, beginning in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 1900s, of prohibiting native languages.

Teachers punished any student they heard speaking a native language and burned any baskets they might have woven or carvings they may have made, Morganroth said.

Along with the language went culture and spirituality and, often, physical and mental health.

"It's caused a lot of our health issues," Jaime said.

"Those social adjustments can be traumatic."

But young Quileute speakers reap rewards for learning their language, Powell said.

"We've got a lot of evidence that Native students who do best are the ones who are very clear about their cultural heritage."

A portable cultural icon
Renewing Quileute, said Powell, also gives tribal members an icon they can carry anywhere, unlike carved or woven objects.

"It's a portable symbol of group identity," he said.

"When you are speaking Quileute, you know who you are."

Powell — who the Quileute named kwáshkwash, or blue jay — has retired from the University of British Columbia.

He worked there for 20 years and published 10 books on the Quileute, recording their last speakers and trying to save the language.

He hasn't tried to make his students fluent in Quileute.

"We don't know of a single child raised speaking English who has learned a native language in a classroom," Powell said, despite educators' spending $2 billion on such efforts.

Phrases, not fluency
"Fluency wasn't one of the alternatives. It just wasn't achievable."

Instead, at the invitation of the Quileute Tribal Council, Powell and Jensen devised a series of intensive courses, four to five weeks long, held twice a year over two years.

The Quileute reached the halfway point of the curriculum last month.

What is emerging is a language of English mingled with Quileute words and phrases — greetings, common comments and "useful terms of various kinds," Powell said.

At the end of several weeks of study, "every Quileute realized they had heard people using their language, " Powell said.

He admits that orthodox linguists might be horrified at the idea of teaching a mixed language.

Tribe's first book
Powell says the purists need to consider the alternative: no one speaking Quileute at all.

"Their language is still with them," he said of the hybrid tongue. "This is a language in use.

"Something fun and rewarding is happening, and it's called the Quileute Language Revitalization Program."

The Quileute's efforts to relearn their language produced another point of pride: a Quileute/English and English/Quileute dictionary, the first book published by the tribe's own publishing company.

The book is to be distributed only to Quileute tribal members.

Asked why he would bother to try to save a dying language, Powell said, "The only argument I need is that the Quileute think it's worth the effort."

Besides, "a language is like a species of bird that has evolved across thousands of generations.

"How hard would we work to save such a bird from becoming extinct?"

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