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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Keeper of Yakama Language Awarded Honorary Degree
by Phil Ferolito- Yakima (WA) Herald-Republic

When Virginia Beavert was just a teenager, she was appointed by the Yakama Tribal Council to work with an anthropologist studying the tribe's culture on the reservation.

Beavert was the only tribal member then who could speak English and several dialects of the 14 different tribes that make up the Yakama Nation.

"I had to talk to the people in their own dialect," 87-year-old Beavert recalled.

She had no idea that her translating skills would eventually lead her to helping the tribe preserve its language.

Now, after playing a key role in developing a 576-page dictionary of her native language, she has been awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Washington.

"I was quite surprised," she said. "I've been working on this dictionary for quite some years.

"It starts way back in my life, when I was still young yet. I learned to read and write the language."

Honorary degrees are usually based on significant contributions made to a specific field or to society in general rather than traditional requirements.

On Friday, Heritage University, where she teaches her native language, will hold a dinner celebrating her honorary degree.

"I do have a deep respect for her," Yakama General Council Vice Chairwoman Mavis Kindness said. "She's one of the few fluent speakers. She's probably the last one of our fluent speakers that can read and write the language."

Beavert not only led a project to write the dictionary, but also earned a bilingual and bicultural master's degree from the University of Arizona in 1997 and continues to teach her native language.

Beavert grew up speaking Yakama, and her mother spoke little English.

But her stepfather always encouraged education, she said.

"He told my mother that he wanted me to go to public schools because I am going to have to communicate with other people after they are gone," she recalled.

Beavert, the first woman official elected to the tribe's General Council, said the first languages she learned were Nez Perce, Umatilla and Klickitat. Later, she said she learned Yakama and English.

How did she learn them all?

"Just being around older people," she said.

But when she began writing down the language, it caused a rift between her and her mother, who held strong to tradition and the tribe's unwritten laws.

It wasn't until her mother attended a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and learned that many tribes were losing their language, that she became supportive, Beavert said.

"She realized how important the work was and agreed to help," Beavert recalled. "Oh, that was the best news I had in my life. It was very emotional for me. After that, she was a big help."

Now, Beavert is working on a thesaurus of the Yakama language for linguistic studies, she said.

She said there is a sudden interest in the Yakama language among professors.

"For a while, we were pretty low on the totem pole," she said. "I don't even think they respected our language."

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