New speakers try to save language

Keith Chu / The Bulletin /

WARM SPRINGS - Deanie Johnson and Val Switzler knew it would be up to them to save the Wasco language, some day. They just didn't know the day would come so soon.

”Everybody stops and asks us, 'How do you say this?'” said Johnson, who started learning the language in 2000. ”We do this from the time we get up to the time we go to bed.”

The pair, both in their 40s, have spent the past six years learning from tribal elders who are fluent in the Wasco language of Kiksht.

Now those elders are dying off.

The second-to-last fluent Wasco speaker, Madeline McInturff, died earlier this month at age 91. Three fluent Wasco speakers have died since 2004, according to a pamphlet produced by The Museum at Warm Springs.

The Wasco tribe is one of three tribes based at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, which also houses the Warm Springs and Paiute tribes.

Johnson is the granddaughter of 91-year-old Gladys Thompson, generally recognized as the last fully fluent speaker of the Wasco language in Warm Springs. A second fluent speaker lives on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Switzler, who is more distantly related to Thompson, began learning Wasco in 1998 and is now the program manager for the tribes' language program.

”They're the young people who learned from these older people and they have to pass it on,” said Myra Johnson, manager of the tribes' culture and heritage department, who is not directly related to Deanie Johnson.

Switzler will leave in two weeks to study business management and American Indian studies at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., on a scholarship for a year. But she'll return to teaching the language when she gets back, Switzler said.

When the pair started teaching Kiksht, first to elementary school students and now to preschoolers, both leaned heavily on McInturff and Thompson.

”We would learn words the night before we went to class,” Switzler said.

Thompson, a tiny woman with rose-tinted glasses the size of small pancakes, wore a crisp white collared shirt with a floral print and a black handkerchief on her head, at a recent meeting.

Thompson agreed to speak briefly to The Bulletin, but declined to be interviewed extensively.

She teaches Wasco to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds at the tribes' early childhood education center and often allows herself to be videotaped and recorded speaking the language as part of the tribes' effort to preserve a record of her native tongue.

There are others on the reservation with some knowledge of Wasco, but besides Thompson, most have fallen out of practice or choose not to speak it, Myra Johnson said.

A dying language

Two other languages are spoken on the Warm Springs reservation - Ichishkin, spoken by the Warm Springs tribe, and the Paiute language, Numu - have many more fluent speakers remaining, Myra Johnson said.

There are about 25 fluent Ichishkin, also called Sahaptin, speakers and 30 more people who can speak it well, Johnson said. Only about five fluent Paiute speakers remain in Warm Springs, but the language is spoken in Burns and also parts of Nevada, she said.

And while the Sahaptin speakers are relatively young, in their 50s and 60s, nearly everyone with knowledge of Wasco is growing advanced in age, Myra Johnson said.

”The Wasco truly is more endangered because of the fact that all the speakers are probably over the age of 80 and 90,” she said.

Myra Johnson attributed the age difference to the fact that many in the Wasco tribe were quicker to adopt modern customs than those in the other two tribes.

The Wasco language became the basis of the Chinook Jargon, a regionwide language used for trade between tribes, she said. But Wasco itself was so difficult that it didn't spread far.

”For linguists it was a feather in their hat if they were able to pick that language up,” because it's so hard to learn,” Myra Johnson said.

Although many of the elders could speak all three languages, they have little in common, linguistically, Switzler said.

McInturff liked to say that the Wasco were the world's first rappers, because of their rhythmic songs, Deanie Johnson said, laughing.

”They say you gotta have a lot of saliva,” she said.

The Wasco historically lived and fished on the Oregon side of the Columbia River near The Dalles, according to a tribal history available at The Museum at Warm Springs. But after the arrival of white settlers, their tribe splintered, with some going north, to the Yakama reservation, some south to Warm Springs and others moving to the Willamette Valley.

In the early 1900s, Indians in the federal boarding school system were punished for speaking their native languages, Thompson said.

”They'd lock you up in a dark room, or paddle someone,” even for speaking their language on the playground, Thompson said. Deanie Johnson said she didn't even know her grandmother could speak Wasco until she heard her dedicate The Museum at Warm Springs in 1993.

The prohibition against speaking native languages was so strong, it kept American Indians from reviving them for decades, Deanie Johnson said.

”Except for speaking with some of the old people, they hadn't used it since they were 6- or 8-years old,” said Deanie Johnson, who now lives with her grandmother. ”They didn't use it for so many years; it had to come back to them.”

The emergence of Ichishkin as the language of tribal ceremonies and official functions on Warm Springs has also created obstacles to keeping Wasco alive.

”There's hardly any more Wasco customs left,” Johnson said. ”All the roots, you learn their names in Ichishkin.”

A common plight

The plight of the Wasco language isn't unique, said University of Chicago Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics and of Psychology Michael Silverstein. Silverstein studied the Warm Springs languages in the early 1970s, he said.

”It's a process that has been going on for a long, long time in different parts of North America and also other parts of the world,” Silverstein said. ”As younger people stop learning the language as a part of their daily lives, eventually the language becomes a language of ceremony. Eventually, the people who can use it in a ceremony are gone.”

In the most successful efforts to revive languages, native speakers have created settings or situations where people feel comfortable speaking them. Otherwise, even nationwide programs, such as the Irish attempt to teach Gaelic in public schools, tend to fail.

The Warm Springs culture and heritage department videotaped Kiksht conversations between Thompson and McInturff for years and created a dictionary of the language.

The department is also working to recover old recordings and studies of the language that are stored in universities across the country. A 1907 wax cylinder recording of Thompson's father was recently uncovered at the University of California, Berkeley, Switzler said.

While creating dictionaries and videotaping conversations in the traditional languages can help preserve them, there's no substitute for native speakers, Silverstein said.

”It's not quite the same as someone talking to someone,” Silverstein said. ”It's always a blow because there are subtleties in which a way a language is fluently used which we really haven't discovered how to document.”

Although the fluent Wasco speakers won't be around much longer, Deanie Johnson said her grandmother is comforted by the progress they've made in teaching preschoolers. A turning point was their graduation ceremony where, the children flawlessly recited a short song in Wasco.

”She heard them during their graduation and she just about cried,” Deanie Johnson said. ”She knows it'll keep going through those little kids.”

For their part, Switzler and Deanie Johnson said they have no plans to give up the fight.

”It's almost like you wish you could have another baby so you could raise them up in the language,” Deanie Johnson said. ”I think I got into a lifetime commitment.”