On July 28, the Cultural Resources Department’s O’odham Piipaash Language Program (OPLP) hosted the eighth annual gathering of people from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRPMIC) and the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) to bring together all the Piipaash speakers from both communities. It was a time to celebrate their accomplishments and efforts of working together in their struggle to maintain their language.
In attendance were many elders, their family members, as well as some youth of the Community who are learning the Piipaash language. It is well documented that the loss of a tribal language can compromise tribal identity and sovereignty. The efforts of the OPLP and other entities within the Cultural Resources Department are instrumental in supporting the efforts of tribal members to maintain the existence of tribal communities like the Piipaash and O’odham.
July 30, 2007, was the date of the first Piipaash language gathering. Addressing the audience, Leota Standing Elk stated, “This first meeting was called the Piipaash Elders Gathering. At this meeting there were four people from SRPMIC that showed up on this day; they were Ron Carlos, Ronnie Mack, Robert Aguilar and the late Teola Andreas.”
Standing Elk remarked, “From this meeting, Mr. Carlos suggested we ask our relatives from Laveen (District 7, GRIC) to come and join us. And you have been supporting us ever since. We really appreciate it. The fact that you come all the way here every month, and get here on time or even early to be with us, shows you are really interested in helping us save the language. This day is a way for us to thank you—we hope you enjoy yourself!”
Welcoming remarks were offered by Deanna Scabby, SRPMIC council representative from the Lehi area. Scabby emphasized that the Tribal Council does as much as it can to help the language programs and understands how important it is.
Scabby shared some memories of her upbringing in Lehi. “As a child, [I] grew up down the road, and my grandparents lived [right around here]. At this corner (where the current Lehi Community Center sits) was our whole life. We came to get our water here; everyone walked to play ball on the field here; many of us sat under the big tamarisk tree that was next to the ball field—it was the only shade and cool place we had at the time. It is interesting how far we have come as a people. We have amenities in our homes, electricity and water, and comforts of life.”
Scabby emphasized, “It’s [our] culture that sustains us. It was our family members [and our relationships among the people] that kept the language alive. I am thankful you are all here to teach us [so we can] pass on to the children our language. Today, many of you are still teaching our young people.
“I know learning the language might be difficult … for me, my grandmother would visit with others and all they spoke was Piipaash; [unfortunately, for some reason] they only spoke to [the children] in English. The [Piipaash] language was living at that time—it wasn’t gone, it was alive. It has only been a couple of generations [that have gone by] now, and we are fighting to keep it going. I try to [work on my language] by using and hearing the language on my iPad. It’s not foreign, but I miss the sound of the language that I remember when it used to be fluent.”
Scabby added, “I want to say I know each and every one of you has contributed so much to keeping our language going, and we thank you. And to all who are here, please keep coming back! You are welcome here, and we need to keep our relationships strong.”
Ron Carlos, Leota Standing Elk, along with different staff members of CRD formally thanked and provided a gift to all the elders who were instrumental in starting the program, who attended the meetings to practice and share the language, and most importantly who helped foster the bonds between the two tribal communities. Carlos shared, “A lot of times, everyone gets into [learning a] language and thinks of it as an easy thing. However, it is really one of the hardest things to do.”
Alice Manuel, OPLP manager, emphasized the importance of the efforts of both communities, noting how their work has been instrumental in keeping the Piipaash language alive and growing among its people. Manuel shared, “Today is a very special time. I would like to express to you our thanks from the OPLP for eight years of language learning and language revitalization. We have learned so much. Our teachers have been able to use the language you have taught us to help put together the Piipaash language classes.”
Manuel asked if the attendees knew about Facebook. She stated, “There is a Facebook post that read, ‘People born in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were the first to experience many different things [like computers, videos, CDs, different music players …], and today, the technology is continually advancing. Many of us in this room today have seen the progress from no technology, to see it evolve to where it is now.
“[Reading that Facebook post] made me think about our language, and it made me sad. Many of you were born into the language. You heard your parents and grandparents speak the language. Now that has flipped. When our children are born, they do not hear the language, [they primarily hear English]. So you are the last of the people that have gotten to experience [our native] language spoken in the home.
“My hope and dream, and that of OPLP, is that our newborn babies … somewhere, sometime, will hear their Native language. If you have people in your families that have young ones, please speak to them, because that might be the only time they will hear the language firsthand. All of you sitting in this room are a very rare and valued resource to the Gila River and Salt River Indian communities. You are precious gems to us – wanted to let you know this.”
The event lasted into the afternoon, with entertainment provided by the SRPMIC Piipaash language program dance group, the Vospo Dancers, who performed a variety of dances to the delight of the audience. A hearty lunch was served to all in attendance.
There were games of Piipaash bingo played, and the winners received an assortment of prizes. There were different levels of comprehension and language proficiency among everyone who played, and a sense of camaraderie developed as players helped one another with word identification.
The day was filled with fun. It was a time for reflection and a time to be thankful for the efforts to keep the Piipaash language alive.