January 14, 2008

Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Nez Perce

Language of the elders

Preserving the sounds and identity of their American Indian cultureBeginning in 1996, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation adopted an ambitious language program to preserve the old tongues from becoming extinct.

Each weekday, a small selection of tribal elders representing all three languages gathers informally to socialize and help one another re-extract the old words and phrases from their memories. While the group started with about nine elders, two have since died.

With the help of descriptive linguist Noel Rude, Ph.D., the tribes have begun to amass a collection of recorded and phonetically written texts of the native dialects, transcribed interviews with the present tribal elders. From those, Rude has continued to expand the dictionaries and figure out the language grammars.

While that work continues, the tribes have begun to build curriculum to teach the languages, now foreign, to the newest generation.

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