Language is the hub of human activity. It is where plans get made, information is shared, history is preserved and art is created. Americans have long lamented that each generation takes less and less care of the mother tongue. That concern is valid. Limited language skills means a limited life.
But the concern about the quality of language should go beyond English. A culture's language is a storehouse of identity. Teachers claim that is why so many American Indians struggle in school. The words they are made to speak are not their own.
That's why the Utah State Board of Education is asking for $275,000 to preserve and revitalize Utah's indigenous languages. Studies have shown that using American Indian languages to instruct American Indians enhances learning. The money will be used to work with the San Juan and Uintah School District Utes in the early going. Other tribes would be added to the program later.
Even without the practical and educational value of preserving Indian languages, just the fact they have been a vital component of a segment of humanity merits the money. We help preserve petroglyphs created by the ancients. We help preserve and protect crafts and villages. Preserving their languages is the obvious next step.
What's more, American Indian culture isn't important only for American Indians. By preserving native tongues, all Americans benefit. Each culture each language adds a hue to the portrait of what it means to be human.
In San Juan County, for instance, the early White Mesa Utes were called Fancy Talkers by the Paiutes. The Southern Ute name for the San Juan River was "River flowing from the sunrise." Spring was "Green grass appearing" and fall was called "When doves sound soft." Their imaginative words were breathtakingly beautiful. An early tale tells of Jesus himself dropping down into the path of some homeward bound Utes. The name they gave him was: "He who leaves footprints of light."
Such poetry should not be lost. And if young Ute students can find a degree of identity, confidence and connection from turning to their native tongues, all the better.
For the truth is we really aren't what we eat.
We are what we speak.