Volume 16, Number 10
December 1, 2009

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This Week

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Native Americans on Cultural Preservation


The Department of American Culture and Literature was very pleased to welcome to Bilkent five Native American guests in a visit sponsored by the Turkish Coalition of America on November 18. They attended a roundtable discussion about “Preserving Native American Traditions and Cultures.” Participants included Valerian Three Irons, South Dakota State University; Evelina Zuni Lucero and Stephen Fadden, the Institute of American Indian Arts;

Dr. Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, Northern Arizona University; and Christine Tachias Gilbert of Gilbert and Associates, an educational consulting firm.

Participants introduced themselves in their own languages, stressing that each one came from a different American Indian tribe. The role of language in preserving Native American cultures emerged as the dominant theme in their presentations. Mrs. Gilbert noted that there are 562 Indian tribes, speaking 175 languages. Yet by 2050 it is estimated that perhaps only about 20 of these languages will still exist. 

Mr. Three Irons, a Mandan Indian, noted that only two people in the world now speak the Mandan language, himself and his grandfather.  Stephen Fadden spoke of English as a “viral” or “killer” language that destroys other languages.  Mr. Fadden warned the audience to make sure that even as they absorbed English, they should continue to speak and preserve their own languages.

Novelist Evelina Zuni Lucero, author of “Night Star”, “Morning Star,” noted that she wrote in English for a global audience, and that Native American writing has always flourished when pressure for assimilation was greatest. Dr. Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert told the story of his great, great grandfather Chief Looloma, who traveled to Washington D.C., in the 1880s.  Awed by the white man's technology and great cities, Chief Looloma returned to his people and urged that they combine native ways with those of the white man: “Learn his ways so that we can also survive.”

Over 100 years after Chief Looloma urged this compromise upon his people, Native Americans suffer the highest rates of alcoholism, diabetes, and teen suicide in the United States.  American Indian children increasingly turn their backs on their languages and traditions.  Preserving these languages and traditions in the face of linguistic and cultural threats poses a daunting challenge to all indigenous peoples.

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