With Indigenous Languages in Steep Decline, Summer Camps Offer Hope
In July, about 20 7- and 8-year-olds will gather at a summer camp in the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, in Northern California. They will sing songs, put on puppet shows and play games.
And there will be one special rule: No English.
That’s because this five-day summer camp is held almost entirely in Hupa, the native language of the roughly 4,000-member Hoopa Valley Tribe that mostly lives in that part of the state.
For decades, native speakers of Hupa, also known as na:tinixwe mixine:whe, have dwindled. Only about 20 people are fluent enough today to teach the language and pass it on, tribe members estimate. The camp is a bet that immersion at a young age can help change that.
“That’s always the goal,” said Sara Chase, a member of the tribe who organized the camp with the Hoopa Tribal Education Association. “How do you create new speakers?”
As the number of languages spoken globally is in steep decline, it’s a goal shared by an increasing number of indigenous communities seeking to maintain a core part of their culture, inextricably tied to their history and way of life.
“We are facing a really interesting chapter of human history where people are going against the tide to keep their language alive or bring back languages that are dormant,” said Gabriela Pérez Báez, a professor of linguistics at the University of Oregon.
Some experts predict that half of the roughly 7,000 languages in existence today will lose all fluent speakers by the end of this century.
In surveys of about 245 language revitalization programs that Dr. Báez, director of the university’s Language Revitalization Lab, conducted in 2016 and 2017, more than half began after the year 2000. About 30 percent started after 2010.
“It just goes through the roof,” she said.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of the Indigenous Language in an attempt to raise “global attention” to the peril facing indigenous languages, as well as a way of celebrating revitalization efforts like those in the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said Boyan Radoykov, section chief for universal access and preservation in Unesco’s knowledge societies division.
The United Nations initiative, through a series of events, is highlighting several programs around the world.
A hackathon in Singapore last month explored ways to use free software to help preserve indigenous languages. And a conference this month held by the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences focused on Russian indigenous languages.
“The world must find a way to preserve these languages,” Mr. Radoykov said. “We believe that it contributes significantly to the promotion of cultural identity and diversity and intercultural dialogue.”
The story of the Hoopa Valley Tribe stretches back thousands of years, to when the tribe first populated the region that would become Northern California, Ms. Chase said.
The valley itself is where the Trinity River cuts through the mountains. Tribes in the area used redwood trees to make homes and canoes.
The discovery of gold in the mid-1850s brought white people — and violent conflict — to the area. In 1893, the Bureau of Indian Affairs created the Hoopa Valley Indian School, where, as at other such boarding schools around the country, white teachers burned traditional clothing, gave children Anglo names and forbade them to speak the language of their parents.
For more than six decades, the government tried to “civilize” and “Christianize” Hupa children, according to the book “Our Home Forever: The Hupa Indians of Northern California” by Byron Nelson Jr.
(Both Hoopa and Hupa are derived from the same word — a colonial interpretation of the Yurok term for the Hupa people. The proper name is Na:tinixwe, which is what the people call themselves.)
In the Hoopa Valley and across the country, younger Native Americans became increasingly exposed to the English language. Many older people suppressed their native tongues and dissuaded their children from speaking them, if they were taught at all.
“Some would say that whenever they try and speak the language, they could taste the soap in their mouths,” said Daniel Kaufman, a director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a nonprofit group in New York.
Schools did eventually begin to teach na:tinixwe mixine:whe, but not enough to create new fluent speakers, Ms. Chase said.
“Time is finite; that is always scary and always something that I think is in the back of our minds,” said Erika Tracy, the executive director of the Hoopa Tribal Education Association, which oversees tribal educational programs. “I just feel that urgency, to know that we need to learn, and we need to learn fast, and we need to teach fast to sustain our language and everything that comes with that.”
Ms. Chase’s immersion camp began in the summer of 2017. She had graduated from Columbia University in 2014, where she majored in Native American studies and linguistics, after growing up on the reservation. She is enrolled as a Hoopa Valley Tribe citizen.
The tribe, as its own sovereign nation, requires citizens to prove a certain level of tribal ancestry, Ms. Tracy said.
As part of a senior thesis at Columbia, she held a “bare-bones” version of the immersion camp. Then, in 2017, after receiving a $10,000 grant from a nonprofit organization called Running Strong for American Indian Youth, she started her first summer camp, with about 15 children, which ran for four days. In 2018, there were about 20 children, and the camp expanded to five days. Ms. Chase hopes to eventually start her own school.
Younger children, she said, can cognitively pick up languages much faster than older ones.
There are precedents showing that a small effort like Ms. Chase’s can have a large impact. Two of the most prominent language revitalization efforts, of Maori in New Zealand and of Hawaiian, started in a similar fashion.
By the 1980s, the number of fluent native speakers of the Hawaiian language had fallen to about 1,500. Professors at the University of Hawaii at Hilo set up a preschool where older Hawaiian speakers taught the language. Slowly, adding a new grade each year, they succeeded in creating a preschool-to-high-school system in which Hawaiian is the primary language of instruction.
In New Zealand, activism by community groups led to the kohanga reo movement. Beginning in 1982, it immersed Maori preschoolers in the Maori language, among other efforts to recover the language. Maori became the official language of New Zealand in 1987.
Today, indigenous people are increasingly embracing the language. The New Zealand government says it wants more than 20 percent of the country’s population to speak basic Maori by 2040 and has pledged to provide Maori lessons in all schools by 2025.
Some efforts focus on revitalizing languages that had lost all of their speakers, like Myaamia, the dormant language of the Myaamia people who historically populated the Midwest. By the 1960s, there were no known living speakers, said Daryl Baldwin, the director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Revitalization in that case began by delving into archives in the 1990s. One linguist from the University of California, Berkeley, used dictionaries recorded by French Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mr. Baldwin used old documents belonging to his grandfather.
The Myaamia Center was founded in 2001. It’s a partnership between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, where the Myaamia people were relocated, and the university, and today it develops curriculums for tribal youth programs, trains educators and researches tribal history.
One of the goals of such revitalization efforts is to restore confidence. Dr. Báez said that “the loss of the language is a very tangible evidence of the oppression that a people might have suffered” and that it “signals a significant defeat and vulnerability.”
For Ms. Chase, it’s about a resurgence of a way of life damaged by colonialism.
“It really is a whole other way of looking at the world, of feeling,” she said. “There’s just so much power in the language.”
Ms. Chase said she drew from the Maori and Hawaiian initiatives as she developed her summer camp idea.
At least one attendee seems to have been inspired.
Almost every day, Grace Kane, a 7-year-old member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, sings songs in Hupa, said her mother, Brandice Davis. Grace calls to the family dog in Hupa, and has started teaching words and phrases to her older sister.
To Ms. Davis’s chagrin, when Grace decides to defy her parents, she even says “no” in Hupa.
“For her, it’s just fun at the time,” Ms. Davis said. “For me, it’s more along the lines of hope, hope for our future.”
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