Jaeci Hall was dipping her feet in the Rogue River when the first song came to her.
This Southern Oregon river is where her ancestors lived, and just upstream is the bend where, in 1855, Rogue River natives were ambushed from the banks after signing a treaty and mown down by militias’ gatling guns.
But at that moment in 2002, the river was peaceful, and Hall was experiencing something that would change her life.
Hall had just started learning Tututni, the language of her native ancestors.With the new words fresh in her head, she composed her first Tututni song.
“Mountains, do you have any stones?” Hall translated. “Yes, a lot. River, do you have any water? Yes, a lot. Earth, do you have any children? Yes, many sing here.”
It was a moment of pure joy, said Hall, a doctoral student at the University of Oregon. But that joy had a tinge of sadness: Tututni, at the time, was essentially dead. All fully fluent speakers passed away within the last few generations.
This is where many Native American languages are headed, according to Ives Goddard, PhD, senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institute. When Europeans first made contact with North America, there were as many as 500 languages spoken. Twenty years ago, there were 210.
In the United States, this is a direct result of persecution. Young Native Americans were often sent to boarding schools where the mantra was “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The Pacific Northwest and West Coast are particularly deprived. Linguist Michael Krauss, PhD, reported in 1996 that “in the entire Northwest or Pacific Coast no Native American language is still spoken by children.”
But linguists around the country are fighting to save these endangered languages before their last living speakers pass away, according to Goddard. At UO, the Northwest Indian Language Institute is on the front lines.
NILI’s weapons are dictionaries, online courses, e-books, videos and immersion schools. Linguists and teachers drive all around the Pacific Northwest, building curricula and then helping teach the language.
NILI also uses songs, like the ones that come to Hall. She now works with NILI and is working toward a doctorate in linguistics at the UO. When she sings in Tututni, she feels that anyone can understand her.
“They don’t understand what my words are, but they get my emotion,” Hall said.
Linguists’ work preserving and teaching the language is painstaking, Goddard said. One example: Whereas most English verbs have five forms — see, sees, saw, seeing, seen — many Native American languages have hundreds, even thousands. Hall’s dissertation will be centered on verb forms.
“If people knew how hard Native American linguistics was, they wouldn’t say ‘It’s not rocket science’,” Goddard said. “They’d say ‘It’s not Native American linguistics.’ “
But what’s even harder is getting the language to stick. Young learners have grown up with no use for a language other than English. The first part of bringing a language back is finding a function for it, according to David Lewis, PhD a tribal historian who got his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from the UO.
Lewis signs his emails with “Go Ducks!” in Chinuk wa-wa, a language the Grand Ronde community east of Lincoln City has been trying to revitalize for almost 15 years. Even after pouring millions of dollars into education efforts like curricula and an immersion school, less than 10 percent of Grand Ronde’s population speaks any Chinuk wa-wa, and only a handful speak it fluently.
While older generations feel an obligation to revive the language, younger generations aren’t always as concerned. Hall is trying to raise her daughter, Tahhili, to be bilingual, speaking English and Tututni. She feels these struggles first-hand.
“I can speak sometimes to my daughter — sometimes she knows what I’m saying,” Hall said. “Sometimes she goes ‘What does that mean?’ and I translate it for her. …Sometimes it’s like that and sometimes she doesn’t care or doesn’t want anything to do with it.”
Bringing these languages back to where they were hundreds of years ago isn’t necessarily the goal of their work, NILI’s Associate Director Robert Elliott said.
That’s what he thought when he first began teaching: the goal was for everyone to speak the language all the time.
“That doesn’t necessarily have to be what your goal is,” Elliott said. “It can be to just start using the language again for identity purposes.”
With the death of every language, a world of culture is lost, Hall said. Linguist and advocate Kenneth Hale compared it to cultural genocide.
“Every language lost is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre,” Hale once said.
Many Native Americans feel this absence spiritually; Elliott compared it to “missing an arm.” There are cultural terms and ideas you can’t communicate in English, so if the language dies, the culture disappears.
“When you lose your language, you lose elements of your culture,” Elliott said. “You can easily lose elements of your identity.”
So for Native Americans like Hall, restoring this language is reclaiming her identity, and every step forward is a miracle.
“We’ve already hit rock bottom. We’ve lost all of our fully fluent speakers,” Hall said. “Whatever happens with it, is miraculous.”