"The learner of an endangered language has a greater task than merely to learn the language. He is also working with the speaker to re-create a speech community." (p. xv, How To Keep Your Language Alive)
The problem with us is who we are, the substance of our daily lives, and the practicalities of our existence.
"The Master-Apprentice Program requires both the Master and the Apprentice to develop new language habits in order to create the desired immersion situation." (p., 9, How To Keep Your Language Alive)
As Vine reminds us in The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty, "Anyone could act like an Indian; it took a certain amount of self-discipline and knowledge of the customs to act like a Lakota, a Navajo, a Nez Perce, or a Crow."
On April 5th I went to the 8th Biennial Language is Life Conference for California Indian Languages, organized and hosted by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (www.aicls.org). The Advocates do not leave the task of being or becoming to anyone, not to the schools, not to the Government, and not to the institutions whose purpose it is to destroy them. They take it on.
Many of the Advocates come from Peoples whom have been declared extinct, or who fail to meet current Anthropological standards of recognition. According to external measures they fail to have a history, they fail to appear as distinct, they fail to appear viable, the fail to appear at all. Some come from Peoples whose languages no longer have living speakers and some come from villages where the fluent generation is a dying one.
If we can no longer think of ourselves in our own words, in our own grammar, we will no longer be. Language is life, it prepares and eats our food, it hunts, it recognizes medicine, it prays, it teaches us what it means to be, who it is we uniquely are as a people from a place.
I come from a multilingual family that chose to stretch English to its breaking point, instead of teaching us the languages we sprung, like tségha'nilchi', from. In the stretching though we learned the power of thought, the strength of hearing and vision required to live in San Francisco shaping words from multiple alphabets and worldviews. Few understand us when we sit together laughing our toothless laughs, but we try to bang meaning out of this metal called today in this place called now.
English only. I have learned by their example to make it work for me, but more importantly I developed linguistic dexterity and desire and with this I move forward, replanting the roots we wrapped and stored in paper towels and aluminum foil.
The Advocates recommend spending at least 10 hours a week on language. Deb Morillo recommends 3 hours, a day. Their purpose is to create speakers. You create speakers through immersion. Re-creating a speech community requires the self-discipline and knowledge Vine spoke of. The ancestors knew this. You know this. In its most audible form creating a speech community means speaking, Diné Bizaad, Sahnish, etc., But growing up in a family whose ancestral strength resided in our ability to hide and run I know that additional forms of maintaining a speech community include those cultural practices we can, sometimes, and do, often, practice in the dark.
The punishment for refusing to submit to standardization and translation is powerful. It is applied equally to our finances, our souls and our psyches. The legacy of that punishment is evident in the paper trails we leave behind, in our homes and in our bodies. Standardization is a process of enforcing a certain rule: silence=subjegation.
When I was just learning to teach writing, a more experienced tutor explained to me that problems in grammar were largely problems in thinking, so if you cleared up the thought, the grammar usually worked itself out—provided you were working with a native speaker. I am a native speaker. My problems did not, do not, will not go away. Blame it on my dad, the Coyote Wino, or blame it on my Grandma, too devout Catholic who took me to bed every night, and walked with me, across our headboard into the Pueblo to visit people, knocking on doors and entering when invited.
Listen. Understanding requires that you take a certain approach, develop a method of listening and shared reciprocal experience of connection. The Advocates spoke of listening to the tapes in the archive, spending time with fluent speakers and when there were none to be found, to listen to the voices from the baskets, they will speak if you will listen.
I grew up learning that each person reaches across the space that necessarily exists between people in an attempt to hear to see to feel to touch and to taste. Language is life, it brings us together, in relation.
My intention for this column is to speak explicitly about language and developing a speech community with the goal that we each take, 10 hours a week (at the least), to living immersed in our ancestors' way of speaking, and consequently of living. It takes its title from my experience at the Stonestown Apple Store, with Specialist Billiejoe Jones. We were in the middle of our "personal shopping" appointment, and I was asking which programs and documents I would lose and which I may be able to salvage, after my computer failure last March, and nearly 10 minutes into it he stopped me, placing his hand out, saying "for future reference, no one says, os, it's O. S.." And reminded of Gertrude's experience with the Grafton Press, questioning her knowledge of English, and writing, I should have replied, "I suppose, said she laughing, you were under the impression that I was imperfectly educated." But I did not. And he continued to supply me with inaccurate information. And since white men, in particular, though Billiejoe was at the most 9 years old when Serpent Source purchased the failed computer for me, love to correct my English, usage and pronunciation, I have decided to use his phrase as a title for this column. Ahéhee'.
- ► 2009 (13)