PUEBLO OF ACOMA, NM With fewer than 100 speakers remaining,
the Acoma Keres language is on the verge of extinction. Few young
people under the age of 40 have learned the language. If no action
is taken, the Native American Pueblo of Acoma stands to lose a fundamental
part of its heritage, an Acoma educator said. Acoma's Department
of Education and the Language Conservancy have created an Acoma
Language Recovery Plan to restore the Keres language and preserve
the pueblo's legacy for future generations. They wrapped up the
first phase of the project mid-March.
"This initial phase is called a Rapid Language Acquisition Process,"
said Stanley Holder, executive director of the Acoma Department
of Education. "What they're doing is they're assembling a 10,000-word
Acoma Keres dictionary. From that they will be developing electronic
media to support language revitalization by making that available
for tribal members to learn. They will also be developing books
and CDs and other products to support language revitalization."
this May 11, 2017 photo, linguist Willem de Reuse uses a phonetic
alphabet to record Acoma words at the Acoma Learning Center
in Acoma in Acoma, N.M. With fewer than 100 speakers remaining,
the Acoma Keres language is on the verge of extinction. (Cable
The Language Conservancy, a nonprofit organization headquartered
in Bloomington, Indiana, has been assisting tribes with language
preservation and revitalization for more than 20 years.
"They are going to work with us to develop curriculum from early
childhood to eighth grade," Holder said.
The pueblo, located roughly 60 miles west of Albuquerque,
will assume operation of the Sky City Community School in 2018 from
the Bureau of Indian Education. They plan to have teachers who are
certified to teach in the state of New Mexico and who have tribal
certification to teach the Keres language. To set the stage, Holder
said they have applied for a consolidated tribal assistance grant
to implement an after-school program that will provide 30 minutes
of academic enhancement followed by an hour of cultural immersion.
"The goal is that when these students graduate eighth grade,
they will be conversationally fluent in Keres," Holder said.
Quoting Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley, Holder said: "'Language is the
key to open the door to the culture, to the tradition, and to the
spirituality.' "But there is concern because the number of fluent
speakers shrinks every year. I come from a tribe where last November,
that window closed for us. Our last fluent speaker died," said Holder,
a Wichita Indian from Oklahoma.
For Acoma, it's not too late.
Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Language Conservancy, said
they had more than 30 fluent speakers coming daily, and systematically
going through a list of more than 1,700 topic areas, called semantic
domains, which covered everything from A to Z.
The speakers were divided into six groups which aver aged about
176 words each, or more than 1,000 words a day. A chart on a wall
of the cafeteria documented their daily progress. As of Wednesday
they had 7,000 words and were hoping to get to 9,000 by Friday.
"This is essentially the largest dictionary project of its kind
ever in New Mexico for this scale - and possibly one of the largest,
fastest dictionary projects in the U.S. with this particular method,
which is called rapid word collection," Meya said.
"It's a great way to build a dictionary quickly, especially
in the context of a language like Acoma, where we don't have 20
years to spend, slowly and methodically working on a dictionary.
The average age of the speakers is relatively old over 65,"
he said. "It's a very short window of time to try to capture all
the words that are in the language."
The response from elders was enthusiastic, he said. Some participants
were remembering words they had not used in years.
this May 11, 2017 photo, Language Conservancy executive director
Wilhelm Meya watches through a monitor as teams of linguists
and Acoma speakers build an Acoma dictionary at the Acoma
Learning Center in Acoma, N.M. With fewer than 100 speakers
remaining, the Acoma Keres language is on the verge of extinction.
(Cable Hoover/Gallup Independent)
"Ourselves as the linguists, we're mostly in the scribe area,
where we're transcribing the language that we hear," he said. "We're
also doing some audio and video recording as well to make sure there's
some redundancy to the work that we do."
Anita Warfel, record keeper with the Summer Institute of Linguistics,
typed in each Keres word and its English equivalent from the linguists'
lists, documenting how many words were collected from each group
as well as other data.
"It's a language that is good for people to study because it
has various structures and various sounds that we don't have," she
UNIVERSE OF LANGUAGE
Linguist Willem de Reuse and the Acoma participants in Group
2 sat at a table huddled around a microphone, where they were discussing
the word "crease."
"Like a crease or a fold in the pants," Elvis Howeya said, reading
from the topic list. "It's a really sharp edge when you put it on
pants. What words refer to a fold in something? Fold, crease, angle,
wrinkle, flap, dog-ear, tuck. What words describe something that
has many folds crumpled up and pleated?"
The speakers gave de Reuse the Keres words and sounded them
out as he meticulously wrote them down.
"We have a preliminary spelling system that we're using to write
the language down in the different groups. We all use pretty much
the same system, a phonetic writing system that is not officially
adopted by the tribe yet, but is quite precise as far as all the
different qualities of sounds are concerned," de Reuse said. "Later
on, we will look through all these words again and figure out what
spelling system the tribe prefers. It might be less detailed or
more detailed, depending on what the tribe decides and wants their
kids to learn."
this May 11, 2017 photo, linguist Willem de Reuse, left, transcribes
Acoma words as they are told to him by Elvis Howeya, Pauline
Villegas and Vina Leno at the Acoma Learning Center in Acoma
, N.M. With fewer than 100 speakers remaining, the Acoma Keres
language is on the verge of extinction. (Cable Hoover/Gallup
Vina Leno said she and others grew up hearing and speaking the
language, so that's how they became fluent in Keres. "My grandchildren
can understand it, like simple commands or simple conversations,
but their speaking is not there yet," she said.
Pauline Villegas and Lois Torivio became interested in the dictionary
project because they want to make sure their children and grandchildren
learn the language.
"It's learnable because when I married my wife, she couldn't
speak Keres and now she's very fluent," Howeya said. "She can sit
and talk with me fluently, and she can actually pray fluently in
our language. She doesn't need help anymore. So it's learnable just
by talking to individuals. It's just the kids have a disadvantage
because when they're in school, what do they hear most? English.
So they forget what they learned at home once they get into a school
Ida Madalena, 81, a former teacher who was with another group
of elders, said her children do not speak Keres fluently.
"My husband was from another tribe so we talked English all
the time and that's how my kids grew up, talking English. But now
they're trying to start talking Acoma," she said.
Faron Tortalita, coordinator of the project for the Acoma Department
of Education, talked about its genesis as he stirred the beginnings
of blue corn mush for the elders' lunch.
"Mr. (Stanley) Holder was out on travel at the National Indian
Education conference and he was able to meet up with The Conservancy
and brought back some material that they had there at the conference.
From there it just started rolling. We've been at this since the
latter part of 2016," he said.
The dictionary is the first stepping stone in what is hoped
will be a five or six year process.
"We're going to be developing things like textbooks, picture
books, whole cartoon series, apps and games," Meya said.
The dictionary should be available at Google Play and the Apple
Store by the end of 2017, with an app available in 2018.