It Takes a Movement

Volume 24, No. 4 - Summer 2013
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Carolyn Burgess Savage grew up in a one-room shack among the sugar cane fields of southern Louisiana. Her family of eight didn’t have any of the conveniences or consumer trappings that characterized postwar 1950s America. Even worse, they experienced firsthand the grinding oppression of the South’s Jim Crow laws and the social, political, and economic marginalization that came with them. But Carolyn was proud. She was an enrolled member of the Chitimacha Nation, a small yet sovereign, federally-recognized tribe situated near the Gulf Coast in the town of Charenton.


THE WARRIOR. Until her death, Carolyn Burgess Savage fought to revitalize the Chitimacha language. She focused much of her work on teaching children at the Yaamahana preschool. Photo by Miguez Studio.

Carolyn worked hard in school, secured a couple of scholarships, and set off for Lawrence, Kansas, where she took classes at the Haskell Institute. She began to recognize that the survival of her Native language was in serious jeopardy. Linguists identified Chitimacha as a dying language and, like Zuni, Washo, or Haida, as an isolate—unique and independent of any larger language family. With only a handful of speakers remaining, Carolyn made it her life mission to do everything in her power to save her language. She gave all her children Chitimacha names, including her first-born, Kica, who remembers lucidly her mother’s words: “We’ve got to hold on to what we have and get back what we can.”

Carolyn eventually moved back to Charenton and began teaching Chitimacha at the local cultural center. She taught adults, teens, and toddlers—she even sang lullabies in Chitimacha to infants. She employed every method imaginable: cleverly devising games for children, translating popular Christmas carols, and eventually working with Rosetta Stone to digitally preserve the language. Soon, Chitimacha made a comeback. “You’d hear kids speaking it,” Kica recalls, “Kids would go to the store and ask for things in Chitimacha.” Chitimacha songs could be heard echoing in the hallways of the schools and excited elders reported dreaming in their ancestral language. Chitimacha was being revitalized and the tribal community was rejuvenated.

Eventually Carolyn’s health declined. She lost a leg and was bed-ridden. On August 16, 2012, Carolyn Burgess Savage, one of the last fluent Chitimacha speakers died. Her passing raises questions and concerns about the fate of her language and the cultural survival of the Chitimacha people. As Ryan Wilson (Oglala Lakota), president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, warns in his eulogy of Senator Daniel Inouye—the death of a language signals the death of a nation.

Perhaps this is why historically so much energy has gone into deliberately and systematically destroying Indigenous languages. Richard Henry Pratt, the infamous founder of the Carlisle boarding school, believed that the full assimilation of Native peoples required the eradication of their languages. He set about forcibly cutting children’s hair, discarding traditional dress, and outlawing cultural ceremonies. Most insidious, however, was his strict enforcement of an English-only policy, punishing children who were caught reverting back to their Native tongues. Pratt’s formula would be widely adopted during the 20th century and the toll that it took is incalculable.

Today, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are working harder than ever to cauterize the wounds that Pratt and the assimilationists inflicted. And they are succeeding. As the articles herein illustrate, they are building dynamic language programs from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the deserts of the Southwest and all points in between. Indeed, TCUs are doing more than anyone else to successfully preserve, protect, and revitalize Native languages.

The methods and strategies they employ are many. In her feature article, former TCJ editor Laura Paskus illuminates how Aaniiih Nakoda College and Oglala Lakota College have developed primary school immersion programs, while Ilisagvik College has launched a “language nest” preschool. In all three cases the logic is the same: children are the key to language survival and revitalization. As Paskus notes, the statistics underscore the necessity of focusing on kids, with 135 of the 155 remaining Native languages being spoken by elders only.

Other TCUs have directed their energies toward preparing a cadre of fluent language teachers who will, in turn, teach students of all ages. Persia Erdrich shows how Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College’s Ojibwemotaadidaa Omaa Gidakiiminaang immersion program seeks to employ a oneto- one first speaker to student ratio to maximize the immersion experience for student teachers. For three weeks they “check English at the door,” Erdrich tells us. Students take up residence with fluent speakers, allowing them to learn how Ojibwe is spoken in everyday life—something a book or a traditional language class cannot convey.

Blackfoot elder Louis Soop also stresses the limits of books and Western modes of teaching language. In Mary Weasel Fat’s profile, the Red Crow Community College instructor maintains that when teaching language, traditional knowledge is more important than a dictionary. Indeed, Soop credits the Blackfoot sacred Horn Society as being instrumental in his understanding of the language.

Elders like Louis Soop, teachers like Erdrich, and children like those in Aaniiih Nakoda College’s White Clay Immersion School are all integral parts in the success of language revitalization. As herculean as Carolyn Burgess Savage’s efforts were to preserve and revitalize Chitimacha, one person cannot save a language. It takes a movement—and tribal colleges and universities are leading the way. The importance of this endeavor cannot be overstated and it is one of the foremost reasons why TCUs are so vital to both Native communities and to the cultural fabric of the United States and Canada.

Bradley Shreve is managing editor of Tribal College Journal. He thanks Kica Savage and Barbara Williams for their insight and assistance. Bradley can be reached at editor@tribalcollegejournal. org or (505) 242-2773.

  • Neka Mire

    My mother speaking to my 2 eldest children in this pic. Truly a strong and beautiful woman who taught me many lessons in strength and love. Thank you for this article.

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