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Saving Languages, Sustaining Communities

Melissa Axelrod

Language is the thread that connects Native American communities with their traditional way of life, their histories, their ceremonies, their prayers, and the words of their ancestors. It’s vital to cultural identity. Yet without intervention, half of the world’s indigenous languages are expected to vanish in the next 100 years. According to the Linguistic Society of America, of the 165 indigenous languages still spoken in North America, only 33 are regularly spoken by children. Once the majority of young people in a community no longer speak their heritage language, it declines rapidly.

That’s where Melissa Axelrod steps in. A linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico, she has devoted her life to rescuing dying languages. She sees herself not as a hero, however, but as “a professional helper. I don’t have any standing in the Native community to tell people how to organize a program to revitalize their language,” she explains. “I can only ask them what they want to do and then suggest possibilities, seek funding, or help with whatever they need help with.” As a graduate adviser, she regularly counsels students on careers in linguistics. Her advice: For students interested in indigenous languages, opportunities and funding abound.

Axelrod is enthralled by the myriad ways different people combine words and sentences to express experience. “My interest has always been in language structure, the grammar of language,” Axelrod says. “So many different ways to talk about the world, it just makes you think how brilliant we are as human beings.”

In the New Mexico pueblos, Axelrod meets many young Native Americans who are anxious to learn their language so they can speak to their grandparents and elders. But it’s not easy, she says. The English language dominates--from television and newspapers to the wider North American community--making it difficult to maintain a second language in the home.

“There’s a history of educational institutions being culpable for the loss of language--for insisting that communities speak only English,” she says. “I see my job as making a change in that by helping in whatever way I can with my background in linguistics and with some handle on the resources at the university.”

Axelrod’s grandparents were bilingual (they spoke Yiddish as well as English), her parents are multilingual, and language play was integral to her family’s life. But she didn’t set out to study linguistics. As an English major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she was required to take a linguistics course. She didn’t expect it to be interesting, so she put it off until her last semester. Once in the class, though, she fell in love with the subject. After graduation, she crossed the continent to study linguistics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she met two mentors, David Rood and Allan Taylor (now a professor emeritus). They opened her ears to the richness of North American languages: the diversity of expression, the subtle nuance of word choice. She was hooked.

 In Guatemala . Left to right: Jule Gomez de Garcia of California State University, San Marcos, Feliciana Matom of the Grupo de Mujeres por la Paz in Nebaj, Guatemala, and Melissa Axelrod.

During her doctoral research, she applied for a position as a research assistant at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, working on a dictionary of Koyukon, an Athabascan language spoken at the confluence of the Koyukuk and Yukon Rivers. In the early 1900s, French Canadian Jesuit priest Julius Jetté spent 27 years living among the Koyukon and compiling a dictionary of their language. Axelrod was hired to edit an updated version.

The six years Axelrod spent on the project were one big, exciting--but chilly--adventure. “I’m from Los Angeles. So that kind of extreme cold was scary for me,” she says. Her co-workers helped make it bearable. “I worked with a native speaker of Koyukon, Eliza Jones, who was just brilliant and accomplished and wonderful. That was a joy,” she says. Like Rood and Taylor, Jones became a mentor, inspiring Axelrod with her own passion for the intricacies of language and gently schooling her in the art of working collaboratively with Native speakers.

Ever since, Axelrod has followed intriguing languages wherever they led her. After completing her doctorate in 1990, she taught in Costa Rica and California before landing at the University of New Mexico in 1995. “Dr. Axelrod is one of our most popular teachers, sought after by graduate students because of her dedication to mentoring students throughout their academic careers,” says Sherman Wilcox, chair of the Department of Linguistics there. “She is a leader in the field of Native American linguistics. One of the strongest aspects of her work is her deep commitment to working with native communities.”

Helping communities revitalize language

The Native American pueblos surrounding Santa Fe, New Mexico, are popular tourist attractions. For a fee, outsiders can buy a glimpse into several ancient cultures, each with its own language--many of them in danger of extinction. Linguists race against time to document those languages before the last of their native speakers die. Axelrod and her students are the linguistic equivalent of Médecins Sans Frontières, traveling when needed to regions of severe language emergency.

Nambé Tewa is one such emergency. Like many of the languages of the American southwest, it is spoken at only one location: Nambé Pueblo, located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 18 miles north of Santa Fe. Only about 40 of Nambé Pueblo’s people speak their ancestral Tewa fluently. “We are in a language crisis,” says Brenda McKenna, a member of the Nambé Pueblo and coordinator of its language revitalization project.

It’s not just about losing words. When a language dies, it takes with it a pageant of knowledge: the stories of plants and their uses, animals and their relationships to the people, the songs, history, and culture--the very identity--of the people who speak it.

McKenna and her mother, Cora McKenna, the pueblo’s language teacher, contacted Axelrod in 2002 after learning that Axelrod’s group had designed a font for neighboring Tesuque Pueblo. Spelling in most Native languages requires special letters and tone markings--the little squiggles and accents that signal different letter sounds--not available on standard computer keyboards. The McKennas wanted a font for Nambé Tewa, too.

Creating the font was easy, says Axelrod. “Then Brenda talked about the things that she envisioned for the language program at Nambé, and we talked about how we could be of help,” she says. It took some time for Axelrod to develop a relationship with the women, but she was patient. She knew she had to wait for the McKennas to invite her participation.

Axelrod’s position is often awkward because she’s not a member of the community. “We’ve been trained as academics to think of ourselves as being the experts, but we’re not,” she says. “We never will be the experts in Native American communities. It’s the community members themselves who are the experts. So we take the lead from them, always. And I think that’s been a problem in the past, and why there’s so much distrust and wariness in Native communities.”

The good word from the Tesuque helped. So did Axelrod’s commitment to “saying what I’m going to do, then doing it and not doing anything else,” she says.

The Nambé Team. Front row, from left: Brenda McKenna, Evelyn O. Anaya Hatch, Cora McKenna, and Quella Musgrave of Nambé Pueblo.

Back row: Axelrod (third from left) with students Steven Menefee, Katy Pieri, Susan Buescher, Brittany Kubacki, and Evan Ashworth.

A different way to serve

“Many Native Americans who come to the University are drawn to the medical sciences. To go back to the community as a doctor or nurse--the benefits are more obvious than linguistics,” Axelrod says. Nevertheless, she believes there’s a pressing need for Native Americans to pursue careers in linguistics. “It would be much more inspiring to the young people and others in the community to have a Nambé student doing the kind of helper work that I’m doing,” she says.

Brenda McKenna agrees that Native American linguists have much to contribute to their communities, although students of all backgrounds need to be aware of cultural undercurrents. “There is a lot to take on. Some members of Native American communities do not believe the indigenous language should be studied using the ‘western’ method,” she says. “Some feel strongly that it should remain internal, without linguistic influence and participation, and pass to the next generation orally. Period.”

In 2005, Axelrod secured an National Science Foundation grant to fund a revitalization project. She and her students are now helping the Nambé community create a dictionary of the language and an online media database that contains conversations, songs, stories, and histories collected from native speakers. Cora McKenna will use these materials to create lessons for the pueblo’s language classes.

The group meets monthly and sits around big tables writing down dialogues and stories. “There’s nothing more boring than asking someone, how do you say ‘I ran,’ ‘He ran,’ ‘She ran,’ ‘They ran’? So we try not to do that,” she says. Instead, they look for ways to learn about the language while they’re working on projects. Recently, they made bread in a traditional horno, an outdoor, wood-fired mud oven that looks somewhat like an igloo. Axelrod’s students videoed and recorded the breadmaking session as Cora narrated the action. These activities, like the spontaneous storytelling that springs up during breaks, “reflect the real way that people use their language,” says Axelrod.

Studying language revitalization

Ultimately, Axelrod hopes to put herself out of business. “What we all want to do is end the role of the outsider,” she says. “The best is to have Native speakers themselves become linguists and then work in their own communities.”

But time is short, and until Axelrod’s vision becomes reality, there are many opportunities for linguists, both Native American and non-Native, to contribute to language revitalization. For non-Natives, understanding that they are not the boss, allowing the Native community to dictate the program and pace, and cultivating the patience to establish trust with the community are the only ways to weather the cultural differences.

Native students must recognize the contribution that linguistics as a career choice can make to their communities, says Axelrod. It’s not as obvious a choice as medicine, but it’s critically important to the health and survival of the culture.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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