Preserving the Native American language

Language and culture preservation projects are vital to not only native communities, but to our overall wellbeing as a species. We can’t afford to lose the knowledge, and wisdom of a multi-faceted and endangered way of life.

Small projects dedicated to language preservation exist in many tribes, but each one is a battle against time. Often the language and the oral history of an entire tribal nation rests in the mind of just one or two individuals.

In The Hands of Our Elders is a project that has the potential to sustain and celebrate the culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia. The final product will be a book containing intimate portrait and landscape photography by Sharon Grainger paired with transcripts of interviews with the elders by Pamela Pakker-Kozicki. The multimedia venture will also include an interactive website with recordings of the elders’ stories in both English and Kwak’wala. The language is endangered as the population of remaining speakers dwindles.

The story of endangered language is not specific to the Kwakwaka’wakw people by any means. According to a John Donovan story on Talk of The Nation in June, 2013, “nearly half of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world are expected to vanish in the next 100 years.”

Can you imagine being the last one to speak your language in the way that you do? No translation is ever perfect between languages, entire means of self-expression and the thought processes of many cultures will be lost.

According to the theory of linguistic relativity, also called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, “the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.”

When a language disappears, a piece of the culture is lost as well. Culture itself is created and maintained through communication and connection between human beings. The way we talk to each other, the way we greet each other, the ways in which we pray and give thanks are all shaped by the words we use to express ourselves.

Local Tlingit chief Jim Thomas spoke about the relationship between language and culture during a fundraising event for the project In The Hands of Our Elders. He explained that in English, the word “elder” itself can be used most often to represent someone old with failing health. In his language, however, elders call themselves a phrase which means “those who have much knowledge.”
Thomas shared another example of a word representing the culture when he described the translation of their word for chief. Instead of being synonymous with boss, or even leader, he explained that it means “one who stands in front.”

The chief would always be the one at the front of the canoe in battle rather than being hidden on high while letting his minions go to fight. He explained that this represents how — for his people and for him — being a leader means being the most vulnerable and sacrificing anything for the good of all.

Although every tribe and nation have different practices, history and unique beliefs, some consistencies come to the surface. The connection with nature and recognition of our relationship with the world in which we live are lessons that we desperately need as climate change becomes an increasingly tangible reality. 2015 was the hottest year on record according to NASA, and even in the Seattle area, the changing weather patterns of the last few years make this issue even more relevant to our lives.

The decline of native language and culture needs to be halted for more than just the cultural significance to members of those tribes. It also represents a loss of knowledge for the human race as a whole, and the loss of a resource for cultural blueprints on how to live in better harmony with our environment and each other.

Many languages and ancient stories may still disappear, but supporting projects like In The Hands of Our Elders is a start.