The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s Cultural Resources Department opened its first Language Conference, held in the conference room at the Courtyard Marriott Scottsdale Salt River, on the morning of August 8. Community members, members of other tribal communities, SRPMIC tribal employees and staff who work specifically with youth were encouraged to attend the two-day conference.
Current topics on the status of the O’odham and Piipaash languages were discussed, as well as historical events that have led to Native languages such as O’odham and Piipaash becoming endangered. Part of the discussion focused on what various people and programs across the country are doing or have done to revitalize their respective Native languages.
Cultural Resources Director Kelly Washington welcomed everyone to the conference the first morning. SRPMIC President Diane Enos also thanked everyone who attended and spoke about how she uses both languages when greeting others, especially elders. “It’s very thrilling to see many people have attended this event,” said Enos to the crowded conference room.
Enos also acknowledged the elders who were present and asked for their guidance in language preservation. She noted how it is everyone’s responsibility to share what they learned once the conference was over. “It’s our responsibility to carry on the language,” said Enos.
The conference was an event that the CRD and the O’odham Piipaash Language Program have wanted to host for many years. Everyone showed solidarity by walking into the building together, followed by a prayer song that was culturally appropriate to the event.
For many years, Community members have expressed concern about the language in the Community, saying that people have a false sense of security that the language is safe and secure. Yet a language that seems so common can one day just disappear. Many Native languages are facing extinction, and something needs to be done about it.
Some people said that personal and emotional barriers and other challenges get in the way of learning a new language. Sometimes elders or other fluent speakers react negatively when words are not pronounced correctly, which is scary for many trying to learn. So the conference provided tools and techniques for individuals and families to begin or continue learning their languages.
Elders are just about the only ones left who can speak O’odham and Piipaash. Unfortunately, as they pass away, they will take the language with them, making it too late to share what they know. Some people will think, “So what if the language goes away? We all speak English now anyway.” But if we never bother to learn the Native language, then our identity and culture as a people will be lost.
Currently in the Community, 95 percent of the tribal population does not speak O’odham or Piipaash. Tribal members must be advocates for the language, just like the ancestors who fought for the land and fought for the Community to become a sovereign nation.
Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, a poet and instructor in O’odham grammar, spoke about the importance of the languages. Zepeda said many Native tribes in Arizona and across the country are facing the same problem in losing their languages; many tribes cannot teach their languages because it is too late and many speakers have already lost their ability to speak, read and understand the native languages. Language maintenance and recovery are currently taking place through language-learning initiatives within the SRPMIC and other communities in order to save what’s left.
“Language is a gift given to us to begin to make us human,” Zepeda said. “It is a living thing and has a spirit, too.”
Zepeda then asked what is the health of our language, the vibrancy of it and its strength. She gave the example of the Navajo Nation. Hundreds of thousands live on and come from the Navajo Nation and also speak the Navajo language. But in many of the smaller tribal communities, such as Salt River, the youth do not speak the original language, and they too face the same issues as the O’odham and Piipaash.
“Do we just sit there and let it go and fade away, … or revitalize and recover it, build on what we know from what has been lost?” Zepeda asked.
After the general assembly was over, breakout sessions were held during the afternoon. Groups rotated throughout the conference area so everyone could attend all the sessions offered.
Master apprentice language-learning techniques were taught by Stan Rodriguez of a group called Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS). He asked how many people were fluent in their languages and discussed how some may know more than others. He said it would be great to train others to learn and become good at their languages, and he also discussed language immersion and how that is the best way to learn.
The O’odham table talk given by Andrea Ramon, a former language and cultural instructor at Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School, offered a basic introduction to O’odham commands and phrases. During her session, no one was allowed to speak English. Instinct kicked in; in order to give each other commands, like asking someone to pass a cup, clean off the table or set the table, participants had to remember the words in O’odham.
Ramon explained that the best way to learn language is through activity, nonverbal communication, gestures with hands, movement and facial expressions, mimicking actions, and using photos, books and games.
Helema Andrews, senior multimedia specialist with the Cultural Resources Department, introduced language learning software called Byki (Before You Know It), programmed to teach O’odham and Piipaash. The software can help individuals learn through games and by repeating vocabulary words as they are pronounced.
Currently, the only public place that has the software is the Glendale Public Library, but the Community is working on getting it for members and others who want to use it.