One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?
“I speak it inside my heart”
Johnny Hill, Jr.
Johnny Hill, Jr., of Parker, Arizona, is one of the last speakers of Chemehuevi, an endangered Native American language: “It’s like a bird losing feathers. You see one float by, and there it goes—another word gone.”
“We are still here.”
— Maxine Wildcat Barnett (left)
and Josephine Wildcat Bigler
Maxine Wildcat Barnett (at left) and Josephine Wildcat Bigler say their grandmother always demanded that they speak their native language. “As long as you live in my house,” she said, “you speak Euchee!” Here the Wildcat sisters visit their grandmother’s grave in a cemetery behind Pickett Chapel, a Methodist church in Sapulpa, Oklahoma.
“I don’t want to see this language die out.”
— K’asa Henry Washburn
K’asa Henry Washburn, 86, is one of only four fluent speakers of Euchee left. Every day he drives ten miles from his home in West Tulsa to the Euchee Language House, where children are learning their native tongue. As a result, Euchee students sometimes get in trouble again for speaking their ancestral language in school. Richard Grounds, director of the project, calls him a “living dictionary.”
“My mother’s mother has been here before.”
— Melodie George-Moore
Melodie George-Moore was discouraged from speaking her tribal language while growing up. “Why learn Hupa? Everyone who speaks it is dead.” But she sensed her destiny was tied to learning the Hupa language, and so she has learned it well enough to fulfill her role as a medicine woman. Moore believes that answers to the troubles faced by her tribe may be found in the stories of her ancestors.
“The white language doesn’t go deep enough.”
— Charlie “Red Hawk” Thom
Charlie “Red Hawk” Thom is a medicine man and ceremonial leader. He says that English goes in one ear and out the other: it never touches the heart. Karuk, he says, begins in the heart and moves to the mind. To say you love something, you say ick-ship-eee-mihni. “This is serious,” he says. “If you tell a woman eee-mihni then, well, you’d better be ready to marry her.”
“This mountain has my heart.”
— Caleen Sisk
Caleen Sisk is the spiritual leader and the tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe—and a last speaker of the language that sustains her people’s identity. For a hundred years, the tribe has been fighting with the U.S. government over its territory along the McCloud River, abutting Mount Shasta, which they consider their birthplace. Loss of land and loss of language are connected, says Sisk. “This land is our church.”
“It’d be nice if we could all sit down and talk our language.”
— Ramona Dick
Ramona Dick refused to be sent off as a child to the Stewart Indian School near Carson City, where students were required to speak only English.
— Herman Holbrook
Herman Holbrook struggled to hold onto his Washoe words until his death in September of last year. As he wandered in the Pine Nut Mountains, where his ancestors had walked for thousands of years, Holbrook explained what the place meant to him: Dik’ Ma:sh di ma:sh, or my pine nut lands, my face.