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Mescalero Apaches work to save language

By Rene Romo

Albuquerque Journal

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 9 2011 2:35 p.m. MST

In this Oct. 12, 2011, photo, Don Balderrama, left, and Ryan Smith, right, speak Apache with each other in front of classmates during the Mescalero Apache Tribe Language Program's Apache language class, in Mescalero, N.M.

Albuquerque Journal, Marla Brose) NEW MEXICAN OUT, Associated Press

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 is 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.

For decades, the U.S. government enforced assimilation policies aimed at suppressing native culture and language: for instance, through the Indian boarding school system developed in the 1870s. In the schools, thousands of Native American children were plucked from their homes and families, and were physically punished for speaking tribal tongues.

Nowadays, the Mescalero Apache dialect, like other indigenous languages, is being ground down by the dominant English-language culture that works its way into the homes of the 4,000 residents in the Sacramento Mountain community through television, radio and the Internet. With each generation, fewer and fewer Apaches speak their own tongue, elders say.

"If we just let that go and just go into the dominant society way of living, we aren't Apaches anymore. That just bothers the heck out of me," said Ted Rodriguez, a 74-year-old Mescalero Apache gaming official who is often asked to sing Apache songs at ceremonies.

Based on results of a survey conducted for the tribe, it was estimated in 1999 that less than one-quarter of the reservation population, or no more than 950 people, could speak Apache, either fluently or in part. And the vast majority of those speakers, more than 80 percent, were older than 36.

Last year, officials estimated that fewer than 150 tribal members were fluent in the Mescalero Apache dialect or its linguistic cousin, Chiricahua Apache, according to the NEH application.

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