Nez Perce tribe rushes to preserve language

The Spokane, Washington, Spokesman Review carried a lengthy story on February 18, 2007, about the work of modern members of the Nez Perce tribe to preserve their language, at least in dictionary form. Saving languages of North American native tribes is a difficult task in this century, with so many native speakers old and dying, and younger tribe members not learning the language.

This story involves the Joseph Band of the tribe, including direct descendants of Chief Joseph, whose epic battle against the U.S. Army and mid-winter flight to Canada are included in most U.S. history books, as part of the 11th-grade history standards.

Now you, and your students, can know the rest of that story.

Agnes Davis, 82, works to preserve her tribe's language Caption from the newspaper: Agnes Davis, 82, is the daughter of the last recognized chief of the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce tribe. She and a few others from her tribe are spending countless hours working to preserve a dialect of Nez Perce. (Colin Mulvany The Spokesman-Review)

Other sources:


5 Responses to Nez Perce tribe rushes to preserve language

  1. Ed Darrell says:


    Here are a few resources on the Nez Perce language, with symbols, for example:

    Here’s a guy named Horace Axtell, a speaker of Nez Perce, talking about his life in that language:

    Google “saving the Nez Perce language” and you’ll find several sites with information.


  2. How is the effort coming along to keep the Nez Perce language going?

    Do you have a copy of a Nez Perce alphabet, and Nez Perce words translated into english words?

    I was just interetsed.


  3. brian says:

    A few weeks ago 14 year old girl made history by singing “Oh Canada!” in the Cree language to open an NHL hockey game. It was quite a touching experience.

    Both Cree and Inuktitut (Inuit/Eskimo language) both have a good chance of surviving because they are spoken by large groups over a wide geographic area and many young people are able to speak fluently. The northern news has a segment in Inuktitut, there are commercials on CBC North and it is spoken in the Nunavut legislature.

    However, hundreds of other aboriginal languages are on the verge of disappearing. I have been loosely active with several bands who are struggling to preserve their language and to be honest it doesn’t look good, despite heroic efforts. Yes, they have archives, a few storybooks and a lexicon. The kids can say a few words and common phrases, but they cannot really express themselves.

    There is the difference between documenting a dead language and sustaining a living language that is actually spoken.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Maybe lost cause, but isn’t that part of what makes it vital, especially to those working on the project?

    Here in the U.S., the Boy Scouts have a camping honorary called the Order of the Arrow. It was started out near Philadelphia about 1915, and they took a local tribe’s language to provide Native terms and names — the Lenni Lenape tribe. Of course, by that time the Lenni Lenape had been driven to Georgia, and then to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

    Long story short: The last speaker of the language died in Oklahoma about two years ago. You’d think that the Order of the Arrow would have paid close attention to such events, but nary a word could I find.

    Culturally, languages are important to those who speak them, and to the next couple of generations, and to scholars. It’s a difficult situation in which to keep a language alive.

    But I hope they do. Can you imagine a speech contest in which Nez Perce kids compete to see who can best do the “I will fight no more forever” speech, in the native language? And better, then they perform the other great speeches?

    At a minimum, I hope they get someone with a tape recorder and get an archive made. Where are the Lomaxes for language, when you need them?


  5. brian says:

    Aboriginal languages is also a huge issue in Canada . To be honest, it looks like a lost cause for the most part. I think that Inuit and Cree will survive as living languages for some time, but the rest look ready to die out within a couple of generations. Among the Kaska very few young people are fluent, although it is taught in the school as part of the curriculum.


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