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Preserving a Dying Language in its Final Stages

Indiana University anthropologists aim to preserve a Native American language only spoken by fewer than 40 mostly elderly people.

Full Moon, Assiniboine

Photo: Frank Rinehart

Photographed in 1900 by noted photographer Frank Rinehart, Full Moon posed at the Crow Agency in Montana. The Assiniboine thrived in what is now Montana and Saskatchewan.

“Long ago when my grandmother told me stories. Stories of long ago. Now I’ll tell them. Long ago there were two young men who were always together…”

Indiana University Anthropology Professor Ray DeMallie translates a story told a quarter century ago by Jim Walking Chief on a reservation in Montana…

Stories like these are disappearing. In fact, the Assiniboine language is vanishing because its speakers, like Jim Walking Chief, have passed away or become too frail. Most are now over the age of 80.

IU Anthropology Professor Douglas Parks says he felt a duty to interject.

“It’s their heritage. It was slipping out from under them. If somebody like us didn’t come around and do something the language would be virtually lost,” Parks said.

Grasping onto a language slipping out of the world’s fingers isn’t easy. So says Linda Cumberland, a collaborator on the project. For instance, try learning English by picking up the latest printing of Webster’s dictionary.

“For instance, we say, ‘That’s just the way we talk. That’s just the way we say it,’” she said, laughing.

Preserving a dying language is a three-legged stool, she says. First, build a dictionary and write a grammar. that is, determine how are phrases and clauses formed. And all the while, researchers collect all the language’s texts, stories, songs…any snippets whatsoever they can find.

Cumberland says the work takes profound patience.

“Takes months and months and visits back and forth to come up with these clean interesting stories,” she said.

The language has been bombarded from all sides over the past few centuries, Cumberland says. The Assiniboine used to thrive in what is now Montana and Saskatchewan, but their culture and traditions were savaged by assimilation and disease. And young Assiniboine today barely function in their tongue and lack the fervor necessary to keep it going.

But does the extinction of an entire language or culture really matter to the average Hoosier, the average American?

“For the average person on the street, no. The Assiniboine language will never affect their lives,” Parks said.

Cumberland says their project does matter, even if many aren’t paying attention.

“What if it was your language that was disappearing? And your cultures and all the things that were familiar to you?” Cumberland said. “Each people arrives at a different system of explaining and categorizing the world. And to get a sense of the complete range of how humans have analyzed the world, you need to look at a variety of languages because no one language gets it all.”

Ray DeMallie says most Assiniboine are happy to be a part of the project. But he says some are suspicious are his and others’ motives and refuse to cooperate.

“There were always some people who believed that anything a white person does is done for money, ultimately for profit. People among the Assiniboine who said, ‘We’d rather see the language die than give it over to white people.’ They took their knowledge with them to their graves,” DeMallie said.

“It takes a great deal of time to break through those barriers,” Parks said.

Parks says despite the cold shoulders he’s received from some Assiniboine, he still feels a deep personal connection with the tribe.

“I spent more time with them than I ever had with my own grandmother,” he said. “One woman I’m thinking of she’s told me on several occasions that she felt strongly that I was sent by God. She’s repeated it and has never joked about the matter,” Parks said.

After the last Assiniboine speaker dies, DeMallie says the language begins its life anew — as a “dead language.”

“And one of the things they say is, ‘How are we going to pray?’”

DeMallie calls Native Americans, especially smaller tribes like the Assiniboine, the most invisible of minorities. But he says the Assiniboine language and culture, even in its decline, can’t not matter, especially in the United States.

“As we think about the country we essentially took over from American Indian people, we have a duty to understand them, because now we share it. When you look at the world from an American Indian point of view, it’s a very different and scary place to be that kind of minority in modern America,” DeMallie said.

Cumberland says she’s counting on the dictionary sustaining the Assiniboine and their culture in the years and decades after the spoken language dies.

But while all three researchers say their work will try to be as extensive and definitive as possible, they admit, some things will always be lost in translation.

Daniel Robison

Daniel started as WFIU's Assistant News Director in July 2008. He graduated with a B.A. in history in 2007 and earned an M.A. in journalism two years later. Daniel hosts Ask the Mayor weekly and the occasional Noon Edition. He also hosts Morning Edition on Thursdays, sleepily. Daniel's beats include everything News Director Stan Jastrzebski wants him to cover. And it feels strange to type biography of myself in the third person like this. So that's that.

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