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Home » Saving a language, preserving a tradition : UNM Newsroom

Saving a language, preserving a tradition : UNM Newsroom


Language issues—spiritually, culturally, emotionally. Written and spoken phrases are an artwork kind, a means for values and traditions to be handed down for generations. When a language is misplaced, a part of that tradition is misplaced. By the identical measure, when language is preserved, the traditions and customs proceed residing within the hearts and minds of those that perceive it. Language is greater than the sum of its elements: it’s not simply sentence-structure and grammar, language is historical past and discourse, customs and heritage.

Jicarilla Group

Prime row (l. to r.): Everett Serafin, Roberta Serafin, Alberta Velarde, Mary Velarde, Veronica Tiller, Bernice Muskrat. Backside Row: Jennifer Muskrat, Jackson Velarde, Wainwright Velarde, Bea Velarde and Bob Velarde. Photograph Credit score: Veronica Tiller

For the Jicarilla (hē-kah-rē-yah) Apache Nation of northern New Mexico, the survival of their language means the survival of their lifestyle and the preservation of their historical past. In their very own phrases:

“Spirituality just isn’t within the English language for us, spirituality is in Apache. When others speak about us, we’re pictured as pagans. In our personal language, we are able to categorical our understanding of spirit and nature. Our conventional ideas of environmental safety, caring for the aged, and residing in concord with each other and with nature is embodied in our language.”

UNM alumna and Jicarilla tribal member Dr. Veronica Tiller has partnered with Dr. Melissa Axelrod of the Division of Linguistics to file and protect the Jicarilla Apache language for linguistic students and future generations of the tribe. Axelrod is the principal investigator for the Nationwide Science Basis (NSF) award that may fund the work, and Tiller is the venture lead. Their group is comprised of elders from the Jicarilla Nation, plus graduate college students from UNM to assist with digitizing and archiving. Tribal elders will re-translate texts collected from the Eighteen Nineties to the Nineteen Thirties to replace outdated and inaccurate translations whereas including historic and cultural context to the tales and definitions.


“Spirituality just isn’t within the English language for us, spirituality is in Apache. When others speak about us, we’re pictured as pagans. In our personal language, we are able to categorical our understanding of spirit and nature. Our conventional ideas of environmental safety, caring for the aged, and residing in concord with each other and with nature is embodied in our language.”

– Jicarilla (hē-kah-rē-yah) Apache Nation

And the largest payoff for all concerned? Fluency in Apache for the group, and the potential of fluency for future generations.

“It’s not only a new translation,” explains Axelrod. “Veronica and her group are creating a brand new writing system to make it simpler for learners to learn the language.”

“We’re calling it user-friendly language,” provides Tiller. “That’s the understory of this venture—we’re going to study to learn and write Apache.”

Melissa Axelrod

Dr. Melissa Axelrod

Historical past of Jicarilla Apache

The Jicarilla Apache are descendants of one of many Athabaskan teams primarily based on their comparable linguistics and geographic location—Northern, Pacific Coast, and Apachean (Southern). Apache tribes lived semi-nomadic lives within the deserts and mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, and the plains of southern Colorado, with some smaller tribes extending into present-day Oklahoma and Texas.

The Jicarilla Apache folks established settlements in and close to the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Their conventional origin tales communicate of the “coronary heart of the world” on this space, bounded by the 4 sacred rivers: the Rio Grande, the Pecos, the Arkansas, and the Canadian. Apache and Jicarilla are each phrases of Spanish origin, the latter which means “little basket” and utilized by the conquistadors after their arrival within the 1500s. The self-designated title for the Jicarilla Apache language is Abáachi, and haisndayin or “individuals who got here from beneath” for the folks. Just like the higher Apachean language household, it’s additionally generally known as Diné, and the languages are very comparable.

There are seven Apachean Athabaskan languages divided into two classifications, Plains Apache and Southwestern, which incorporates Diné (Navajo), essentially the most broadly spoken Native American language in america, and certain essentially the most nicely documented. Navajo translation tasks, together with dictionaries and grammar guides, have set the usual for a lot of different Athabaskan language translation tasks, together with Apachean.

Preserving A Language

Makes an attempt by anthropological students within the late 1800s and early 1900s to file and translate Native American languages resulted in a number of printed texts. Nevertheless, most of those early efforts to explain indigenous languages, cultures, and other people in English didn’t embrace the right cultural context for the translations to be correct. That is partly as a result of they didn’t know the tradition, but in addition as a result of Apache is generally a spoken language that features nuance and gesture, each troublesome to file in written kind. In 1911, one such scholar, Pliny Earle Goddard, printed a set of conventional Jicarilla tales in each Jicarilla Apache and English, Jicarilla Apache Texts, that serves as a place to begin for this Jicarilla language preservation venture. Tiller and Axelrod acknowledge the worth of those works from an ethnographic standpoint, nonetheless, a lot of Goddard’s translations from what Tiller calls “outdated Apache” into English doesn’t convey the unique tales’ cultural which means and spirit. Whereas his texts embrace a pronunciation key, the variations in sentence construction between English and Jicarilla Apache, in addition to the omission of distinctions in tone and nasality, make it troublesome for each native audio system and tutorial linguists to grasp the interpretation.

Pliny Earle Goddard

Pliny Earle Goddard

The purpose of this venture is to resume and restore the Jicarilla Apache language and tradition by way of involvement of their very own neighborhood, whereas additionally empowering the neighborhood to study to learn and write Apache. The group is led by Tiller, who’s fluent in Apache and has authored six books about her tribe and different Native American tribes. She organized ten Jicarilla Apache elders, all fluent native audio system and all college-educated, with out whom the venture wouldn’t be doable: Bernice Muskrat, Everett Serafin, Robert Serafin, Wainwright Velarde, Lindberg Velarde, Alberta Velarde, Mary Velarde, Jackson Velarde, and Bob Velarde.

“We try to right the misinterpretations, the stereotyping of our language and our folks, and attempting so as to add extra to the cultural context to create a extra correct interpretation of our tales,” says Tiller.

Simply because this can be a language venture, she says, doesn’t imply language is the one a part of this meticulous, multi-step course of that connects our present-day with a previous when Goddard’s texts have been written. It’s also a studying course of for everybody—the group will produce re-translations of the older texts, specializing in the accuracy and the which means by including the socio-cultural context to revitalize the language, all whereas studying to learn and write Apache. The method goes one thing like this:

  • A narrative from Goddard’s textual content is chosen, and since the prevailing copies of the textual content can usually be troublesome to learn, group member and Jicarilla elder Roberta Serafin varieties the chosen story in outdated Apache right into a doc.
  • Member and elder Bernice Muskrat, who’s fluent Apache, reads the story and with Tiller, interprets it into the fashionable dialect. Muskrat then makes an audio recording of the interpretation.
  • The interpretation is shared with the remainder of the elders to start the Apache-to-English translation. As soon as full, the group approves a last translation.

This final step is a really difficult and really time-consuming course of. Every member has a special perspective on the interpretation—some perceive the general story, some know the historical past and pronunciation of particular phrases, some are fluent in Apache and know the grammar—and so they all must work collectively to honor the interpretation correctly. Tiller says the primary story took about 40 hours for the complete right interpretation as a result of “It includes a lot philosophy and faith and tradition and customs and the way in which folks communicate.” To get it proper, bringing within the elders of the neighborhood who know the language and are a part of the tradition is important for accuracy and preservation. With all mixed interpretations—outdated Apache, written up to date Apache, oral Apache, and English—they supply a last translation to Axelrod for archiving.

Axelrod isn’t any stranger to the preservation of endangered languages, and she or he isn’t solely the final step within the course of. Certainly, the Jicarilla Apache venture solely provides to her experience within the digital archiving of those languages. The font Muskrat makes use of was coded by Axelrod and her venture group a number of years in the past, and is used within the dictionary she edited, Abáachi Mizaa Ilkee’ Shijai: Dictionary of Jicarilla Apache, that has confirmed to be a useful useful resource to the group. Axelrod additionally served as principal investigator (PI) for a Tewa language revitalization and archival venture, in addition to a co-PI for a venture that created a multimedia database of conventional Ixil Mayan tales from Guatemala.

“The factor that struck me most about this venture was that they mentioned, individuals are attempting to study this language, nevertheless it’s not offered to them in a means that they’ll entry it,” she says. “So, we need to make it written in a means that they’ll learn it.”

“Dr. Tiller advised me that when folks study Spanish or French, they’ll go and browse a novel or every kind of paperwork within the language, and that’s not the case in Jicarilla,” says Axelrod. “We need to present, she mentioned, a physique of literature to go together with the teachings. Which I believed was sensible, and so did the folks at NSF.”

As the interpretation group works, Axelrod and UNM linguistics graduate pupil Mariann Skahan will digitize and archive the complete translations of the tales. That is half of a bigger effort to make clear the historic file in relation to indigenous languages by being inclusive of indigenous communities’ personal views and utilizing their interpretations as supply materials.

The Jicarilla Apache

The Jicarilla Apache – A Portrait, an essay by Veronica E. Velarde Tiller

A Way forward for Challenges and Prospects

A lot of the group’s work has been placed on maintain due to the SARS-COV-2 pandemic. Like many people, Tiller and Axelrod have been working from house, and Tiller continues making Zoom calls with particular person elders and carrying on as finest she will be able to. However Zoom calls should not all the time doable in rural areas the place some group members stay with restricted web entry. The dangers of assembly in individual are far too nice because the group works with a extremely weak group of individuals, usually speaking in shut quarters, generally discussing one phrase for hours. COVID-19 has been particularly devastating to Native communities in New Mexico, and this neighborhood isn’t any exception. Group member and tribal elder Bea Velarde handed away in July, and Tiller suffered a private tragedy with the lack of her son-in-law. She now helps her daughter and her household on prime of continuous this work, understanding the survival of her language is determined by tasks like this.

“For one factor,” says Tiller, “most individuals don’t know our tradition and our language, and for an additional, this group that’s doing this venture, we’re all most likely the final era that has the fluency and the cultural data. After we’re gone, there’s going to be no one at our degree of understanding who’re in a position to make this effort.”

“It’s not simply the language, the language is interwoven with the tradition and the social apply and the values of the neighborhood,” says Axelrod. “When you lose the language, a few of that’s misplaced as nicely, so that is vital on plenty of completely different ranges.”

Each Tiller and Axelrod are looking forward to the way forward for the venture and acknowledge the significance of finishing this work for future generations of students and neighborhood members. As a part of the grant, Axelrod has partnered with the Sam Noble Museum in Oklahoma to accommodate a digitally archived assortment as a part of their Native American Languages Assortment, as soon as the tales and supplemental paperwork are accepted by the group. These archives will embrace an introduction and background to the venture; solutions on how the gathering needs to be used; the texts themselves, retranslated and re-transcribed; annotations offering the historic and socio-cultural context; recordings of the conferences of the group discussions; and language classes developed along with the translations.

This venture will proceed to influence the Jicarilla Apache neighborhood even after the NSF grant is over by way of the venture group’s non-profit, Mi-goo-ni-di Institute, Inc. Established in Could 2019 underneath New Mexico Nonprofit Company Act, the Mi-goo-ni-di Institute will have interaction the help of skilled linguists, educators, and social scientists to gather and protect the prevailing literature on Jicarilla Apache language and tradition to foster a scientific method to language preservation. Long run targets embrace instructional and course supplies can be developed with enter from the neighborhood for learners of all ages.

However maybe the significance of the venture could be finest expressed within the phrases of the group members because the venture was starting:

“Bringing again our language means bringing again these ideas and permitting a brand new era to grasp our personal conventional world views and philosophies. Revitalization of the language will give us a voice to speak about these items severely, in a means we felt inhibited to do in English—it’ll permit us to reclaim our lifestyle and deal extra successfully with the social ills that have an effect on us. We are going to enhance the bodily well-being of Tribal members after we regain our traditions and our delight.”


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