Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Learning an almost lost language

The few Mono Indians remaining who speak their tongue are passing it down to children to preserve culture. (A condensed version of an article in the Fresno Bee.)

This piece is particularly poignant:

As late as the 1970s, Native American children in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools were punished for speaking their native languages.... (And this is in the supposed land of the free?)

By Charles McCarthy / The Fresno Bee 10/14/07
Source: Barbara Burrough

NORTH FORK -- Just uphill from an authentic cedar tepee -- or "nobi" in Mono -- four children sat down for a lesson in a language on the cusp of being lost.Volunteer teacher Barbara Burrough, one of the few people left who still speaks Mono, held up a cue card with the word "kah-why-you.""Horse," the youngsters said.Next was "moo-nah.""Mule," they said.Burrough's mother, 81-year-old Gertrude Davis, smiled as she watched the recent lesson unfold."I speak it, and I have no one to talk to, because no one knows how to speak the language or understand it," she said.In classrooms, Mono cultural sites and private homes in the North Fork area, Burrough and a few others are working hard to change that, one child at a time.Before contact with Spanish and English-speaking cultures in the 1800s, an estimated 5,000 spoke Mono in a territory that stretched from the San Joaquin River south to the Kern River.

Today, Burrough estimates that no more than 17 Mono around North Fork can converse in the native tongue -- and not all of them are fluent.It's unclear how many others outside the North Fork area might still know the language.North Fork Mono Rancheria Tribal Council Treasurer Maryann McGovran's son Cody, 13, has been one of Burrough's pupils for about two years. She said she isn't fluent in Mono, but she knows a few words.

Preserving the language is important, she said at tribal headquarters, because the language reflects the culture."It's the heart of our tribe," she said. "It shows who we are and what our people are about."

Mono is among 50 Native American languages in California that are considered endangered, said Leanne Hinton, professor emeritus in the linguistics department at the University of California at Berkeley. Another 50 already have disappeared since the early 1800s, she said."When you lose a language, it's a symptom of losing a whole culture," said Hinton, who has written three books devoted to endangered languages.But saving a language is no easy task -- especially when so few people still speak it.

Mono tribal officials say the decline of the language -- and traditional culture -- began as early as the 1810s with the arrival of outside cultures and languages.A series of broken treaties, land grabs and the integration of much North Fork Mono tribal land into the Sierra National Forest left the native residents little choice other than to join mining, lumber and agricultural economies.

In school, children were discouraged from speaking Mono. As late as the 1970s, Native American children in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools were punished for speaking their native languages, said Andre Cramblit, Northern California Indian Development Council operations director and chairman of the Karuk tribal language restoration committee.Burrough said that her family escaped boarding school because her grandmother told her children to hide whenever a car came up their driveway."That's why we were able to hang on to our language," Burrough said.

Cox has invited parents to a series of Mono classes starting in November."It's important to know where you came from ... to have that sense of self," said Cox, 29, who learned Mono language and culture from her grandmother and others in North Fork but said she still is learning. She claims Chukchansi as well as Mono ancestors.For Burrough, the effort is a labor of love."With learning the language, you learn the culture," the 57-year-old Burrough said. "And with the culture, you learn respect. With respect, you learn to love the land and each other."

Burrough often holds outdoor classes on the rural property of Kendrick Sherman, a tribal elder who died in late September. The Sherman family has dedicated the property to the future of the Mono nation, Burrough said.Nine-year-old Antonio Beihn, a North Fork Elementary School student, said he signed up for the off-campus program because he is half-Mono and it's his culture."If it was lost, we wouldn't have what we have right now," he said.


Anonymous said...

And this is in the supposed land of the free?

Old emigrants' wisdom: It's the land of unlimited possibilities.

(The joke continues: Austria is the land of unlimited impossibilities.)

Books have been written about the many glaring contradictions in US culture.

Nick said...

Mono, btw, has rhythmic stress that counts from the *right* edge of the word, i.e.


It's also agglutinative--so speakers have to intuit how long a word's going to be before the star saying it, to get the rhythm right--and somtimes, apparently, the can/could get it wrong and start over.

Anonymous said...

Ever since I finished school I didn’t think I would want to have anymore lessons ever again, however recently I have wanted to learn a language, maybe become fluent in one and basic in a couple of others. I did a bit of research and found there were loads of different packages available I went with one that claims you teach yourself Spanish and I was impressed it was a computer program that helped with pronunciation and speaks back to you so you can hear it too.