Native tribes fight to preserve culture through language
PERIDOT, Ariz.(CN) — Nearly three dozen students sat in a windowless classroom, some listening, some quietly chatting as their teacher spoke.
“From now on, instead of saying ‘here,’ what do you think you’re gonna say when I take attendance?” Joyce Johnson asked her high school freshmen class one morning. “Can you repeat after me? Kú dá sídáá.”
A few students repeated the phrase, meaning “I am sitting here.”
“I can’t hear you,” Johnson responded. “Kú dá Sídáá!”
“Kú dá Sídáá,” the class replied, louder this time.
Johnson teaches the Apache language at San Carlos High School in Peridot, Arizona, one of the four main communities in the 1.8 million-acre San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. She also serves as the tribe’s language preservation coordinator.
The project encourages students to speak in Apache with parents and grandparents, some of its last first-language speakers. As those speakers age and pass away, the status of the Apache language grows more uncertain.
“We’re losing our identity,” Johnson said outside her classroom in August. “And we’re gonna lose our language eventually, if they don’t start learning.”
Apache is one of nearly 200 languages native to North America facing extinction. More than 300 languages existed on the continent before European colonization, but centuries of genocide and almost 150 years of forced assimilation through government-run boarding schools robbed most Native Americans of their cultures, if not their lives.
“It was an indoctrination process,” said Sheilah Nicholas, an Indigenous culture and language professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the Hopi Tribe. “They couldn’t speak their language. They were forced to immerse themselves in English.”
While the age of boarding schools may seem far in the past, the practice lingered until the 1970s. Nicholas said a colleague of hers remembers getting her mouth washed out with soap for speaking Hopi in school.
As a result of the collective experience, Indigenous people stopped speaking their languages and didn’t pass them down to the next generations. Others feared their children would be mistreated in school if they didn’t speak English.
Nicholas was one of them.
“My mother told me, at 8 years old, maybe I should put away my Hopi and focus on English,” she said. “And that’s what I did.”
Of 14,000 San Carlos Apaches in Arizona, only 20% are fluent. Three of the community’s 35 early childhood language teachers are fluent, and only one of the roughly 350 high school students can say the same.
Johnson said most of those who are fluent are 50 and older.
“There're very few people outside the reservation that care about our Apache language,” Kathy Kitcheyan, a language professor at San Carlos Apache College and former chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, agreed. She said it is difficult to convince kids of the importance of learning their language when everyone around them speaks English and when so much of social media and pop culture is also in English.
Marlowe Cassadore, director of the San Carlos Apache Cultural Preservation Office, works with Apache leaders to keep the language alive by creating dictionaries and textbooks to teach new generations.
Progress is slow-moving. And as Native groups have worked to record and preserve their vocabularies and grammars, they've at times butted heads with nonprofits dedicated to language preservation, which Indigenous critics say are far too willing to claim ownership over Indigenous language materials.
As a result, Indigenous tribes are increasingly trying to do this work on their own — but leaders themselves have plenty of other concerns to deal with. “There are other pressing issues such as crime [and] lack of housing that seem to take over,” Cassadore said. “It's not the intention not to prioritize language and culture. It's just that there are other pressing needs and concerns.”
But while preserving Indigenous languages may not be top-of-mind for all Indigenous people, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Once the language is gone,” he said, “the culture is gone.”
Inspiring the youth
San Carlos Apache leaders fear their message is lost on the youth, who may not understand the importance of preserving Indigenous languages in an effort to keep cultural practices alive.
One man on another reservation in Southern Arizona is trying a different approach.
Juan Bule started making hip-hop music in 2017, when he was 18 years old. Bule doesn’t just rap in English: He also raps in Yaqui, the language of the Pascua Yaqui, a tribe with an 2,200-acre reservation south of Tucson.
There are about 19,000 Pascua Yaqui members across the U.S. and Mexico. Four thousand live on the reservation in Arizona, and only 500 fluent speakers remain in the U.S. Rapping in Yaqui makes him feel closer to his community, Bule said in an interview in December. He’s also received attention from tribal elders, who appreciate his efforts to maintain the language and find new ways to make it appealing to young people.
“It’s a dying culture, but I’m here to pick it up,” Bule said as he stood outside the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival in Phoenix just hours before his performance. “Whether these kids listen to me or not, this next generation is it. I’m here to save them.”
Bule uses the stage name TataSonni, Yaqui for “GrandpaSonni.” “In the end, I’m the one they all look up to,” he explained.
“You’re gonna replay this song to figure out what I’m trying to say,” he said of Move$. “But only the realest know.”
Bule’s efforts to keep Yaqui alive aren’t confined to music. Last year, he started a peer-to-peer youth mentor group on the reservation. The youngest in the group is 7, and the eldest is 23.
The group is focused on maintaining language and culture, getting together often to read in Yaqui and attend cultural ceremonies and other events. He’s confident that the next generation will keep the language alive.
“These kids make me happy,” he said. “I know they’re following me.” He hopes his music can provide a larger platform to preserve his culture. “We’re all on a mission,” he added. “This is our life.”
By knowing Indigenous languages, tribal leaders say Native Americans can stay connected with the cultural traditions of their tribe. Those who don’t speak their language are missing part of their identity, said Cassadore, the San Carlos Apache Cultural Preservation director.
While one may be ethnically Apache, he said, those who don’t speak the language are not culturally Apache. He cited the example of the Sunrise Ceremony, a traditional rite held for Apache women after their first menstrual cycle to symbolize their journey into adulthood.
The ceremony traditionally contains 32 songs that explore Apache culture, history and religious beliefs. Without knowledge of Apache language, the lyrics are meaningless, Cassadore said.
“Those kinda things will be lost because you won’t understand what the songs are about," he said. "It's kinda empty to these people.”
Speaking outside the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival, Bule said there’s a similar sentiment among the Pascua Yaqui.
For those without the language, “it’s stripping your identity,” he said. “But that’s why I’m here.”
Bule grew emotional as he pondered the future of his culture. His face reddened, and tears pooled in his eyes — though the resolute rapper held them back.
“It's my life, bro,” he said. “I’m Yaqui. I say that shit with pride.”
Putting words to paper
While Bule writes rhymes, others are turning to traditional ceremonies in an effort to get young Indigenous people interested in their heritage. On a warm June morning, a dozen young children danced around Tunlii Community Center in Camp Verde, Arizona, as elders watched and cheered.
Wearing traditional dresses and sporting bows and arrows, these “little warriors,” as their tribe calls them, danced to drum beats and songs as their tribe celebrated the release of two new language tools and two children’s books for the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
“Our language is who we are,” Yavapai-Apache Chairwoman Tanya Lewis told the crowd of nearly 200 people. “This is a historical milestone. It means the world to us.”
Before the 1970s, the Apache language and many other Indigenous languages weren’t commonly written down. A lack of resources made it hard for some communities to standardize languages and develop grammatical guidelines.
That’s changed in recent decades, as scholars have taken an interest in endangered languages like Apache — and as Native community leaders have seen value in documenting this important part of their culture. The Language Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to preserving endangered Indigenous languages, recently worked with tribal members to develop dictionary apps and children’s books for both Apache and Yavapai, the two Indigenous languages spoken by the tribe.
The apps operate like Google Translate. Users can type words in English, Apache or Yavapai and receive a translation, definition and audio recording of the pronunciation. It was those new tools that Yavapai-Apache members celebrated last summer as they gathered on their 1,800-acre reservation.
It wasn’t the first time Indigenous people in Arizona had worked with The Language Conservancy. Willem de Reuse, a linguist from Belgium, helped write the first complete guide on San Carlos Apache spelling and grammar. With help from tribal leaders, he began developing a dictionary in the 1990s, completing the project in 2017.
For publishing help, de Reuse also turned to The Language Conservancy, where he now works. The Language Conservancy applied for grants on behalf of the tribe, using the money to develop dictionary apps and children’s books.
But while groups like the Language Conservancy may have the funding and resources to help preserve endangered languages, Indigenous people say there can also be drawbacks to working with such groups. The nonprofit got into hot water in 2022, after critics say it copyrighted language materials it had created for a Lakota tribe in South Dakota — then tried to sell those materials back to the tribe.
Wilhelm Meya, founder of The Language Conservancy, denied accusations that the group takes advantage of tribes for profit.
“Many if not all [of] the allegations are untrue," he said — calling the controversy “distractions from the really pressing work that needs to be done.” He stressed that The Language Conservancy had increased efforts to communicate with tribes on how materials are used and developed, and to ensure tribal archives always receive copies.
Still, after centuries of exploitation, the scandal created tensions between Indigenous people and one of the few groups willing and able to help preserve linguistic materials. Beatrice Lee, director of the San Carlos Apache Language Preservation Program, said she had a similar problem with the group over the textbooks it created for her tribe.
“Because of that, we put our foot down and said no more,” she said. The tribe cut ties with the group in 2023.
Going forward, Lee said she and others in the Indigenous community are more careful to ensure their own autonomy. Kitcheyan, the language professor, agreed. “We are responsible to teach our people,” she said.
Hoping to take the lead on language preservation, Lee’s office is constantly applying for grants to further develop their language tools. Still, resources are slim. With few others working to preserve these Indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of Apache language materials online, Lee said.
But in its efforts to create Apache language materials on its own, the tribe has had some success. The San Carlos Apache Tribe just completed production of its own dictionary. Developed with the help of educators and students in the community, it’s slated to be released in the next few weeks.
San Carlos Apache College offers two language and culture classes to students, one of which is a graduation requirement. That’s on top of efforts by both local teachers and private companies to create Apache language versions of popular games like Candy Crush, Word Puzzle and Kahoot!
Nonetheless, The Language Conservancy controversy has left Indigenous leaders wary about sharing language materials outside the tribe. While the San Carlos Apache originally considered releasing their dictionary online to make it more accessible for students, the tribe ultimately decided against it, said Cordella Moses, curriculum specialist for the tribe’s language preservation program.
“Everything else has been taken from us already,” she said.
In interviews, Indigenous people expressed a range of feelings about what preserving their tribal languages meant for them. Nicholas, the University of Arizona professor, said some young people feel hopeless and disconnected from their community because they can’t speak the language.
“I know how you feel when people tell you that you aren’t Hopi,” she said.
Others, like the rapper Bule, expressed faith that Indigenous languages were here to stay — even if like all languages, they continued to change to reflect the modern-day lives of Indigenous North Americans. “It’s like the telephone game,” he said. “It just changes slightly down the line."
“We’re always gonna have to work at it,” Bule added, “but we’re always gonna be here.”