"Only three Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada are expected to survive into the middle of this century. Mine, Ojibwe, is one of them. Many languages have just a few speakers left -- two or three -- while some have a fluent population in the hundreds. Recently, Marie Smith Jones, the last remaining speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died at age 89. The Ojibwe tribe has about 10,000 speakers distributed around the Great Lakes and up into northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. Compared with many, we have it pretty good.
If my language does die -- not now, not tomorrow, but, unless something changes, in the near future -- many understandings, not to mention the words that contain them, will die as well. If my language dies, our word for "bear," makwa, will disappear, and with it the understanding that makwa is derived from the word for box, makak (because black bears box themselves up, sleeping, for the winter).
So too will the word for "namesake," niiyawen'enh. Every child who gets an Ojibwe name has namesakes, sometimes as many as six or eight of them. Throughout a child's life, his or her namesakes function a little like godparents, giving advice and help, good for a dollar to buy an Indian taco at a powwow. But they offer something more too. The term for "my body," niiyaw (a possessive noun: ni- = "I/mine"; -iiyaw = "body/soul"), is incorporated into the word for a namesake because the idea (contained by the word and vice versa) is that when you take part in a naming, you are gifting a part of your soul, your body, to the person being named. So, to say "my namesake," niiyawen'enh, is to say "my fellow body, myself."
If these words are lost, much will happen, but also very little will happen. We will be able to go to Starbucks and GameStop and Wal-Mart and the Home Depot as before. We will tie our shoes the same way and brush our teeth and use Crest Whitestrips. Some of us will still do our taxes. Some of us still won't. The mechanics of life as it is lived by modern Ojibwes will remain, for the most part, unchanged. The language we lose, when we lose it, is replaced by other languages."
Get the Story:
David Treuer: A language too beautiful to lose
(The Los Angeles Times 2/1)
David Treuer - http://www.davidtreuer.com
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