The Yurok Language is Supposed to Be Dead

The Yurok Native American tribe has lived in northwestern California along the Pacific coast for centuries. Unlike many  Native American tribes, they still occupy a portion of their original territory and maintain many of their cultural traditions.  Like all tribes, however, their language is in danger.

The Yurok language was supposed to be extinct by now. Decades ago, linguists were predicting it would die out around 2010, along with the last generation that grew up speaking it. In  fact, the last native speaker, Archie Thompson, died last year.

However, Yurok has been making something of a comeback in recent years with aid from an unlikely corner: the local public school system. The New York Times reports that the language is taught as a foreign language in four California public high schools and two elementary schools. The classes are not restricted to Yurok tribe members.

According to Yurok teacher Carole Lewis, this is by design. She told the New York Times:

“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth.”

In previous generations, Native American children were punished, often harshly, for speaking their language in school. So, this is a nice reversal.  Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, told the New York Times:

“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us.”

Yurok is now the most widely taught Native American language in the state of California. Want to hear what it sounds like? Listen to this recording of a traditional story from the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Michael Fraley

DNA May Support Linguist's Controversial Hypothesis

New DNA evidence seems to offer support for a controversial hypothesis about the origins of Native American languages put forward by linguist Joseph Greenberg in his 1987 book Language in the Americas. Greenberg hypothesized that all Native American languages could be grouped into three language families: Amerind, Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené, correlating with three separate migrations from the Old World into the New.

Most linguists have blown off the theory ever since, preferring instead to divide Native American languages into as many as 180 separate families. But now, an analysis of DNA, along with new radiocarbon analysis on coprolites found in caves in the American Northwest, may support his theory.

According to the New York Times, the new DNA study analyzed the entire genome of each DNA sample, providing a more complete picture than earlier studies which only examined a small portion. The scientists did find evidence for three migrations into the Americas, roughly correlating in most cases with Greenberg’s proposed language families.

However, they also found that genetically, the three original peoples had mingled substantially. There were also exceptions, like the Chipewyans of Canada, who speak a Na-Dene language but carry DNA primarily from the first, presumably Amerind-speaking migration. However, the DNA/language mismatch could be explained by conquest.

Of course, when it comes to studying ancient cultures, little is certain. As the New York Times notes, scholars have greeted the results of the study with cautious interest:

“This is a really important step forward but not the last word,” said David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, noting that many migrations may not yet have shown up in the genetic samples. Michael H. Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, said the paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained.

Still, Dr. Andres Ruiz-Linares of University College London, one of the study’s co-authors, told the New York Times, “Many linguists put down Greenberg as rubbish and don’t believe his publications. It’s striking that we have this correspondence between the genetics and the linguistics.”

Additionally, a separate DNA and radiocarbon analysis from the Paisley caves in Oregon showed that the people who lived there shared the continent about 13,000 years ago with the Clovis people, known for their distinctively shaped arrowheads and long thought to be the continent’s first inhabitants as well as the only group in the Americas at that time.

A separate New York Times article notes that this study also offers some support for Greenberg’s hypothesis, and quotes study leader Dennis L. Jenkins of the University of Oregon:

“These two distinct technologies were parallel developments, not the product of a unilinear technological evolution. The colonization of the Americas involved multiple technologically divergent, and possibly genetically divergent, founding groups.”

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by ragesoss

The Alligator Song: Resurrecting the Houma Language

The Houma are a Native American tribe who originally lived in what is now Mississippi and spoke a language closely related to Choctaw. After European colonists arrived, they allied themselves with the French and began to migrate further south, into what is now Louisiana.

Today, many Houma still live a somewhat traditional lifestyle, fishing and hunting in the Louisiana swamps.  Their language, however, has been lost since the beginning of the 19th century. They now speak English and Louisiana (Cajun) French.

Now, some members of the tribe are trying to resurrect it, despite the fact that the language was not written and was only minimally documented before it disappeared.

For the past year, efforts to rebuild the language have focused on translating a recording of an old Houma children’s song, called “Chan-Chuba” or “The Alligator Song.” Houma parents used to tease their children with this song, chasing their little ones while they “chomped” the air with their hands.

Nobody living could remember the words of the song, but last year Colleen Billiot found a tape of her great-grandmother singing it. Billiot told the News Star:

“When we played it, it was like we were unlocking a trunk that had been locked up and covered in dust. It’s my great-grandmother who died before I was born. I heard her sing it, and I said, ‘This is a connection to my past.'”

She and another tribe member, Hali Dardar, have been leading the effort to translate the song. They hope that doing so will give them a start on reconstructing the Houma language.

The odds would seem to be against them, unfortunately. The language was hardly documented before it vanished. In addition to the recording, tribe members are searching libraries around the globe for scraps of the language that might have been documented by long-ago missionaries.

Anthropologist John R. Swanton visited the Houma in 1907, and compiled a vocabulary list of 75 words. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia there is some debate over whether or not these words are all Houma — they may instead be from a trade language called Mobilian Trade Jargon.

According to the News Star, a Louisiana State University student is translating a memoir in French that may contain some clues about the language, and there may be additional documentation in libraries in Canada and Paris.

Even if the entire language is never reconstructed, hopefully the song will be translated, and Houma parents can sing it for their children again.

Photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Bogeskov

The Berenstain Bears Now Speak Lakota

Just about everyone under the age of 50 has fond childhood memories of the Berenstain Bears. For decades, they have dominated children’s story hours in schools, libraries and homes. Over 260 of the books have been published in 20 different languages, and the Bear family has also made the leap from print to TV multiple times.

Now, the Bears are adding yet another language to their repertoire: the  Native American dialect of Lakota.  Spoken by the Lakota Sioux Nation, there are about 6,000 native speakers.  While it’s stronger than many Native American languages, UNESCO still lists the Sioux language as a whole as “vulnerable.” As with other Native American groups, there is a generation of Lakota who were forcibly discouraged from speaking their own language as children.  As tribe member Kenny Little Thunder told the Associated Press , “You couldn’t speak your language _ you were hit. They beat the language out of you.”

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Last Monolingual Chickasaw Speaker Dies

The New Year brought sad news for the Chickasaw Nation of Native Americans. On December 30, 2013 they lost Emily Dickerson, the last monolingual speaker of the Chickasaw language. She was at least 93 years old.

The Chickasaw once lived in the Southeastern United States, in what is now Mississippi, though the United States government forced them to relocate to Oklahoma in the 19th century. Their language, Chickashshanonmpa, is hurtling toward extinction. According to Sky News, there were around 1,000 people speaking in 1994. Now, 20 years later, that number has dwindled to less than 70, most of them elderly.  Read more

The Last Navajo Code Talker Died This Week

Chester Nez, the last of the original “Navajo Code talkers” who encrypted US military communications during World War II, died this Wednesday.

In a time when Native Americans were still widely discriminated against by the US government, the code talkers created a code based on the Navajo language.  The idea to use Navajo as a code came from civil engineer Philip Johnston, a missionary’s son who was raised on a reservation.  He believed Navajo would make an ideal military code because at the time there were no written records of it, and it is so linguistically distinct that even speakers of related languages can’t understand it.

Recruited by the Marines, a group of 29 Navajo men (some, including Chester Nez, were really just boys) joined the Marines and developed a code based on their native language.

The code was used in Asia to keep important information from being intercepted by the Japanese. It was never broken.

Ironically, like many Native American children, Chester Nez was sent away to a government-run boarding school as a child. There, he was punished for speaking Navajo. As Simon Moya-Smith wrote on CNN:

“One can’t help but think that, had it not been for the resilience of the Navajo people and their resistance to these early oppressive American policies, it’s quite possible that World War II could have ended differently.”

Even after the war, the Navajo Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy for decades after their service.  However, in 1982 their efforts were officially recognized by President Ronald Reagan, and in 2001 the original 29 Navajo code talkers were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.

Nez’s memoir, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, was published in 2011.

In a 2002 interview with Larry King, Nez said:

“Our Navajo code was one of the most important military secrets of World War II. The fact that the Marines did not tell us Navajo men how to develop that code indicated their trust in us and in our abilities. The feeling that I could make it in both the white world and the Navajo world began there, and it has stayed with me all of my life. For that I am grateful.”

A Lost Language, Set to Music

New Orleans has always been a melting pot for different cultures. A prime example is this interesting musical collaboration, featured on The Raw Story, between French jazz ensemble Mezcal Jazz Unit and the Native American blues/jazz-influenced Grayhawk Band. Grayhawk Band is headlined by Grayhawk Perkins, a historian for the Muskogee Nation, and the Mezcal Jazz Unit makes a point of seeking out indigenous artists from around the world to collaborate with.

In the article, Mezcal Jazz Unit bassist Emmanuel de Gouvello explained his group’s approach:

“We have to do something that is not usual world music, you know, just putting some drums or electronics on it. We have to respect the tradition, but do something new.”

The two bands collaborated on songwriting long-distance, then met up in New Orleans to practice before touring the state. The result was a one-of-a-kind sound. Perkins said,

“It was really intriguing for me to have him come in and say ‘Hey, I’d like to take that traditional [sound] and see what I can do…I can feel that French jazz style to it, which I don’t get here. I get more of that New Orleans jazz-funk style when I do my music.”

Called “3 Moon” after the Muskogee calendar, the band’s songs are based on Muskogee folklore and traditions. Even more intriguing: they are all performed in Mobilian, a pidgin language that different Native American groups used to communicate hundreds of years ago.

Nobody’s sure how long Mobilian was in use. Some scholars say that the tribes used it to communicate before Europeans arrived on the continent, and that influences from French, Spanish and English were incorporated later. Others say that it arose as a response to European settlement. Either way, it’s been extinct since the 1960’s. If you want to get a feel for it, I found a tutorial for you below. Hearing it set to music must be pretty cool. As Perkins described it,

“Here we are, doing almost exactly what our ancestors did 300 years ago. It’s pretty cool. It’s definitely a historic moment.”