Guardian of Language
April 16, 2010 3:51 AM   Subscribe

Born 88 years ago in a bear cave in Eastern Oregon, Virginia Beavert now teaches a language with no textbooks, no study abroad programs, and no dubbed TV shows. The only surviving elder of the Yakama who knows the sacred songs and parables of the "Dreamer Religion", Waashat, Beavert researches and teaches Sahaptin (Ichiskíin Sínwit).

Currently pursuing her doctorate in linguistics, Beavert was recently featured in a U. of Oregon magazine, with links to an interview, a children's story in Sahaptin, and more information about the Northwest Native Languages Institute.
posted by fraula (12 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

Correction... Northwest Indian Language Institute. (Not "Native Languages". Sorry.)
posted by fraula at 3:53 AM on April 16, 2010

Thank you so much for this post.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:32 AM on April 16, 2010

Well, that was an education in a post - my thanks as well.
posted by Abiezer at 5:32 AM on April 16, 2010

On my fathers side of the family I had a great-grandmother that was Yakima. I'm glad people are studying this.
posted by vapidave at 6:05 AM on April 16, 2010

Great post, thanks.
posted by Rumple at 6:19 AM on April 16, 2010

I just got that issue the other day and was thinking about making an FPP. Thanks for this!
posted by catlet at 7:08 AM on April 16, 2010

Great post. I have friends involved in tribal language movements (Miami and Cherokee mostly) and they're fighting the good fight. Problem is, most 87-year-old native speakers of endangered languages are more like typical 87-year olds, and not especially interested or capable of teaching the language that's in their heads. This woman's a national freaking treasure not just for being the last native speaker of her language, but also being a teacher and a scholar of it.
posted by Tesseractive at 8:17 AM on April 16, 2010

This makes me think of Jorge Louis Borges, and the parables he wrote. One in particular about the last first-hand witness of the ritual sacrifices to Wotan, and wondering what small part of the world that, when he himself died, would be forever lost to humanity.

When a person dies, a small moment is lost. When a language dies, a whole version of the world dies with it. Dog does not adequately mean chien, does not adequately mean inu. When this woman passes on, the world will lose some accurate description of it that most of us will never even have known existed, yet we will all be poorer for its lack.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:30 AM on April 16, 2010

Awww man, if I were king of the world, one of the things I'd do is preserve every dying language. It seems so cataclysmic to me, even though I suppose it's been going on throughout human history.
posted by XMLicious at 10:50 AM on April 16, 2010

Some other Native American language resucitation efforts include the Cayuga: Our Oral Legacy Project, the Abenaki Language Preservation project (a very good site, indeed) Wichita, which is in a similar situation of having only one fluent speaker, Doris Jean Lamar McLemore. The Mohegan language is being revived in Connecticut after 100 years of "dormancy" after the death of its last fluent speaker, Fidelia Fielding in 1908, who kept her diary in the language.

There are some surprising success stories too. Mohawk (Kanien’kéha) is taught as a school requirement at Kahnawà:ke near Montreal, due in part to the particular language laws in Quebec. The Mohawk school has produced an unusual language demographic: Mohawk is spoken mostly by older people and people under 25, with the middle aged bracket more unikly to speak the language.
posted by zaelic at 6:59 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oops. I hit post by mistakje before I could link this: Mohawk is spoken mostly by older people and people under 25, with the middle aged bracket more unlikely to speak the language.
posted by zaelic at 7:01 AM on April 17, 2010

Thanks for those additional links zaelic, great! I myself grew up in Mohawk, but not the New York one - in Oregon. I had (and still have) Kalapuya friends, so it's always nice to see preservation and resuscitation efforts for these Native American languages and cultures. I learned everything I know about Mohawk Valley flora from a man who's now a Kalapuya elder.

And personally, I find Virginia Beavert is so inspiring — I read that magazine late at night, thinking I'd go to sleep after one article, and ended up staying awake reading and looking for more until 2am. I hope to have her strength of character, love of life and dedication when I'm her age!
posted by fraula at 10:18 AM on April 17, 2010

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