This Article was originally published On December 22, 2015 for the Winter 2016 Edition of Ethos Magazine
By Jen Jackson
Aspects of Native American culture have experienced endangerment for centuries now, and loss of language is one of the most significant today. For University of Oregon student and Yakama Native Anna Hoffer, Ichischkíin is the tongue she aspires to reawaken.
Anna Hoffer’s language was stolen from her.
She should have been raised singing songs in Ichishkíin, and learning colors and stories in Sahaptin. English should have been her second or third language. Instead, like so many young Native Americans, it was her only language.
Hoffer is not losing time on what should have been: she is working to get her language back. The University of Oregon is one of the only universities to offer a native language as a fulfillment of foreign language requirements — Ichishkíin.
Ichishkíin is a dialect of Sahaptin spoken by the Yakama people in the Columbia River Gorge region. It is only one of thousands of native and indigenous languages in danger of going extinct both globally and locally. According to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages at Swarthmore College, the Pacific Northwest is considered to be the third largest hotspot for language loss worldwide. Languages of the Pacific Northwest are particularly endangered due to the rapid decline in fluent speakers of the 54 American Indian languages in the region.
A junior majoring in Ethnic Studies, Hoffer came to the University of Oregon to reconnect with Ichishkíin. Her grandfather, Nathan Hoffer, was a Yakama man who grew up speaking Ichishkíin and a trade language called Chinuk Wawa. That is, until his preteen years when he was sent away to St. Martin’s Boarding school and was prohibited from speaking his “Indian” languages — one practice among many in a long history of forced assimilation in America. By old age, he had lost his native tongue and could only remember bits and pieces of it before he died.
Hoffer’s mother, Ardyth Hoffer, understood Ichishkíin as a child on the Yakama reservation, but she too lost all but fragments of the language in her adulthood.
“It kind of hurts my heart,” says Anna Hoffer, “Because I was not able to grow up with the knowledge of my ancestors in the way that other people in this country have.”
Hoffer is not the only Native student in Eugene to feel the loss of her language. Jaeci Hall is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon who is working to bring Tututni, the language of her ancestors, back from the dead. When Hall began learning Tututni at age 19, no fluent speakers remained and the language was pronounced extinct. She now spends her free time teaching herself and her 6-year-old daughter. Most of her knowledge of Tututni comes from her own textual and linguistic analysis. Hall wants her daughter to have a relationship with her ancestral language and for Tututni to have value in her life.
“My hope is that native languages maintain their role for a community of identity and [as a] connection to culture,” says Hall. “This is important because it helps a member of a culture relate on a deeper level to their heritage. It can help be an anchor of identity and can help a person know themselves even deeper by understanding how their community and culture got to where they are now.”
Native language instruction at the University of Oregon began in 1997, with the founding of the Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI). NILI works with tribes in and beyond the Pacific Northwest to document and preserve languages. The institute provides support for language instruction not only on campus, but also in communities throughout the region.
Robert Elliott is the Associate Director of Educational Technology with NILI. Instructional technologies allow Native community members to learn languages, self-document, and even author eBooks from afar — all important advances in the battle against language loss.
“We are literally seeing languages disappear from existence right before our eyes,” Elliot says. “Most people are oblivious to this tragedy, but the loss of a language is like seeing an entire library of knowledge burned. I think future generations will look back and be appalled by what is happening.”
The preservation of native languages is about more than historical documentation. Our languages shapes who we are as people, and the way in which we use language is a reflection of our values and priorities. It connects us both to our past and to our fellow speakers — some things simply cannot be translated.
“Language is culture, and culture is language,” Elliott says.
For those who work with languages, their importance to people’s identities is clear, and an identity is not always easy to come by.
Hoffer spent much of her childhood in Maltby, Washington, but moved to the Grand Ronde reservation when she was 14 years old.
“Back on my reservation, being light-skinned is very frowned upon,” Hoffer says. “It gives you identity problems internally and externally in the community. Coming [to the University of Oregon], I feel like this is the first time I’ve been connected with Natives who didn’t focus Nativeness on race or on skin color. I actually feel more connected.”
Due to her skin tone, she says people—Native and otherwise—call into question her legitimacy as a Native person, presuming to know more than Hoffer about her own heritage. Back home, she can be made to feel like an outsider by the cutting jokes of her Native friends and the funny looks from strangers.
So, where do you stand when society tells you you’re too Native to be white, and your community tells you you’re too white to be Native? Ichishkíin offers Hoffer a connection to who she is, not what others define her as.
Though it helps her embrace her identity, Hoffer is still the only Native student in her Ichishkíin class, which poses a problem. She is glad that non-Native students are showing an interest and are learning and preserving the language, but she feels that isn’t enough.
“They’re not necessarily bringing that language back to that community,” Hoffer says. “I feel that other tribal members of the Yakama reservation would [bring it back], and I think it’s more important to keep it in the community.”
Hoffer plans to do just that. She is going to get her Master’s in Education so she can help bring the language back to the Yakama people.
She believes language is not something that can be possessed, only passed down through generations. As such, Ichishkíin belongs to every Yakama person. Hoffer can feel the connection that Ichishkíin has to family, culture, and tradition.
“You can have a whole world of knowledge in just the language that you use,” she says.
Learning Ichishkíin is an emotional rollercoaster for her—from excitement to frustration at times, and “[even] shame in a way, because this should have been my first language,” Hoffer says. Taking back a language with an uncertain future is one way to confront the past. And Hoffer isn’t just taking back the language that was rightfully hers — she’s taking back a piece of her heart.