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Indian Languages Face Dwindling Future

Culture: Members of the Alabama and Coushatta tribes, who also live in Oklahoma and Louisiana, are trying to save their native tongues. But it's an uphill battle.


ALABAMA-COUSHATTA INDIAN RESERVATION, Texas — In the sad old Indian story, two friends argue and destroy their friendship. One, a dove, forever mourns the loss.

Telling the tale, Yolanda Poncho softly imitates the call of the dove, crying for its lost friend, just as her grandmother used to do. The difference is that her grandmother told the story in the Coushatta language, and Poncho recounts it in English.

Although Poncho can tell the story in either language, many tribal members cannot.

The Alabama and Coushatta tribes, which share this reservation, are working to save their languages, which experts say could disappear by the time today's children grow old.

"I wish I had recorded my grandmother," Poncho says. "None of this has been written down. If we want to remember it, we have to pass it down."

Poncho, 33, is the curator of the new Alabama-Coushatta Museum, which opened on Memorial Day. A few blocks away, old men gather at the senior citizens' center. They chat in Alabama, a singsong tongue punctuated with hisses and whistles. Like Coushatta, the Alabama language has never been written down, and few of the tribe's young people speak it.

Of the 200 Native American languages still spoken, 90% are endangered, says Walt Wolfram, a linguistics professor at North Carolina State University.

Children no longer learn them as their first language, and many Indian tongues are tricky to teach, with numerous suffixes and prefixes, Wolfram says. In addition, Alabama and Coushatta are tonal languages, similar to Chinese, in which pitch determines meaning.

Because the languages aren't written, they won't be preserved even as dusty literary artifacts, like ancient Greek or Latin, Wolfram says. "It is really hard to preserve a language unless it is spoken and written all the time," he says. "A language disappears very fast. It typically just takes three generations."

The Alabama and Coushatta languages, understood and spoken by both tribes, are related to those of the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole. The two tribes moved from Alabama to the East Texas pine woods in the 18th and 19th centuries. Always culturally close, they have intermarried and mingled traditions over the centuries.

The reservation's cultural committee offers classes in Alabama for the children, and Poncho is doing what she can to keep the native tongues alive, recording spoken stories by elderly tribal members and mounting museum exhibits.

But television, video games and the Internet are heady competition for an obscure Indian language.

"It just doesn't have the appeal for the kids," she says. "Other things are much more exciting."

The Alabama and Coushatta languages are further handicapped by having so few people to speak them: The tribe is small, just 1,017 members. More than half--532--live on this Texas reservation, says tribal spokeswoman Sharon Miller. One other small band of Alabama-Coushatta exists, in Oklahoma, and one Coushatta group lives on a reservation in southwestern Louisiana.

Outside scholars have compiled dictionaries of the Alabama and Coushatta languages. Using the English alphabet, the dictionaries try to show proper pronunciation and English translations.

"The old people say the dictionaries are wrong," Poncho says. "No one can agree on the exact meaning of some words or the one right pronunciation."

A spoken language changes even more often than a written one, Wolfram explains. With no set standard, opinions differ about pronunciation and meaning.

Once a language is lost, linguists and anthropologists are without a crucial piece of knowledge to reveal how languages develop and are structured, experts say.

"For the people who speak it, they lose a way of seeing the world," says Rob Moore, an anthropology professor at New York University. "Stories are never the same when translated to another language. Nature looks very different when it is classified by different standards, in a different language."

As a child, Alabama-Coushatta Chief Clayton Sylestine had the run of the reservation. He played in the woods, hunted and fished and learned the Indian names of nature.

"I know all the words for the trees and plants in Indian," says Sylestine, now 67, "but I'm not sure I could tell you in English."

Young tribal members can't help.

"I never learned the language. . . . A lot of people my age are the same," says Shannel Kopady, 20. "People move on and off the 'rez' to find work."

Many move 90 miles south to Houston, where they are rapidly assimilated.

Says Wolfram, "When it is no longer an economic advantage to speak Alabama, there is little incentive for the young people to keep speaking it."

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