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.
The vast majority of tribal elders, those 55 or older, interviewed in recent years expressed the belief that Apache dialects are dying, the application says.
"Without the language, there is no identity. You can say you are Apache, but to what extent?" said Claudine Saenz, 67, whose grandchildren are trying to learn the language. "You don't know the songs, you don't know the prayers, you don't know the ceremonies."
Apache is part of the Athabascan language family, which includes Navajo, spoken by more Native Americans than any other indigenous language in the U.S. and enshrined in a comprehensive dictionary decades ago. By contrast, members of Cochiti Pueblo refuse to allow their language to be written down or assigned to a dictionary, believing it is most proper to pass on the language orally, said John Grimley, language manager for the pueblo, which has an estimated 1,200 members.
Producing a dictionary and expanding language archives are just part of a multipronged effort on the Mescalero Apache reservation to revive Native American dialects.
For the past two years, with a federal grant for which Rushforth wrote the application, Bonna Dell Ortega has run a language immersion program for children between 2 and 5 who are exposed exclusively to Apache speakers for nearly five hours a day. The program currently hosts 13 children.
"It will give kids a head start on learning to speak," Ortega said. "These younger ones, they absorb so much."
Meanwhile, since the early '90s, the tribe's school system has made an Apache language class part of the curriculum, though all other classes are taught in English. Students must take an Apache language class through the eighth grade and at least one year in high school, said Lola Ahidley, director of language and cultural programs at the Mescalero Apache School, where roughly 500 students attend from pre-kindergarten to the 12th grade.
Ahidley said that, after the years of schooling, many students can understand some Apache and speak simple phrases. "Where we lose them is when they go home," Ahidley said. "There's no reinforcement."
The tribe, through its language program, is producing its own educational materials so that students, and nonstudents, can practice Apache.
Ndee Bizaa media technician Walter Scott, 26, who has studied graphic design and digital media at NMSU, has produced Apache language animated shorts on body parts, colors, numbers and animals. Team members are considering producing how-to videos on topics like cooking fry bread, making a tepee, and self-respect.
An Apache language class is also offered several evenings a week through the Nde Bizaa program. Rushforth explains language structure while native speakers converse with students.
"One word can lead to another," Enjady told a class of 19 students recently. "It's up to you guys."
Apache dialects have their own unique character and feel. Certain words require the speaker to inject a tiny pause between side-by-side vowels. One consonant, expressed roughly as the sound created by a "tl," requires a speaker to manipulate the tongue in ways that English and Spanish do not.
The language also manifests cultural differences. Apache does not have a word for suicide or for the precise equivalent of goodbye. When two Apaches part ways, common farewells mean "I'll see you again" or "travel in beauty," Rodriguez said.
"There's a place for English, but there's a place for our language, too," said language program staff member Sherman Blake, whose bloodlines include various Apache branches -- Chiricahua, Mescalero and Lipan. "Some tribes have come to the point where they lost the last native speakers. ... This is why we try to teach as many as we can."
Asked whether she was hopeful the NEH-funded project can reverse the language shift, a term linguists use to describe the replacement of a minority group's traditional language, Saenz said: "Let's not say 'hopeful,' let's say 'prayerful.' We pray that it (Apache) will come back. And us elders have to do our best to bring it back, and this program is a good start."
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com