Working to save their language

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By Rene Romo
Albuquerque Journal

MESCALERO, N.M. — One word at a time, one student at a time, a group of Mescalero Apaches and their partner, a New Mexico State University anthropological linguist, are trying to stave off the demise of the tribe’s ancient tongue, the wellspring of its culture.

“Like one of the elders said, every step is sacred,” said Oliver Enjady, an artist and former Tribal Council member who is director of Nde Bizaa, the tribe’s language program. “This (language) was given to us by the Creator for use by the Apaches. ... It’s who you are, and you can’t change that. If this is lost, then what is your identity?”

The language program team has embarked on a three-year effort to produce a comprehensive English-to-Apache, Apache-to-English dictionary along with an introductory grammar. The dictionary, with about 20,000 entries, will be available in print or compact disc and paired with digital recordings of words for the Apache learner.

“This is not just going to be put away, like in a time capsule,” Enjady said.

The project also aims to expand the tribe’s historical archives with hundreds of hours of audio and high definition video recordings of people speaking Apache, mostly elders reciting traditional stories and personal or community histories. The project team, led by Enjady and NSMU linguist Scott Rushforth, will produce educational materials to be used in Mescalero schools.

The project is being funded with a $321,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under the agency’s Documenting Endangered Languages Program, an effort aimed at preserving imperiled Native American languages.

Linguists have estimated there were as many as 300 to 500 languages spoken by indigenous people on the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans, but fewer than 200 survive today, said Ives Goddard, senior linguistics emeritus at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Of the remaining languages, the number that children still learn in the home in substantial numbers is “probably fewer than 20.”

There are no definitive data available on language fluency for most New Mexico tribes other than in census data, which is often inflated, said Christine Sims, assistant professor in the department of language, literacy and sociocultural studies at the University of New Mexico. But based on observations from tribal members, it appears “language shift” is occurring in most tribal communities, especially among younger generations, Sims said.