After centuries of erasure, Arizona tribes fight to preserve culture through language

Nearly three dozen students sat in a windowless classroom, some listening, some quietly chatting as their teacher spoke. 

“From
now on, instead of staying ‘here,’ what do you think you’re gonna say
when I take attendance?” Joyce Johnson asked her high school freshmen
class one morning. “Can you repeat after me? Kú dá sídáá.”  

A few students repeated the phrase, meaning “I am sitting here.” 

“I can’t hear you,” Johnson responded. “Kú dá Sídáá!”   

“Kú dá Sídáá,” the class replied, louder this time.  

Johnson
teaches the Apache language at San Carlos High School in Peridot,
Arizona, one of the four main communities in the 1.8 million-acre San
Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. She also serves as the tribe’s
language preservation coordinator.  

The project encourages
students to speak in Apache with parents and grandparents, some of its
last first-language speakers. As those speakers age and pass away, the
status of the Apache language grows more uncertain.

“We’re losing
our identity,” Johnson said outside her classroom in August. “And we’re
gonna lose our language eventually, if they don’t start learning.”

Apache is one of nearly 200 languages native to North America facing extinction. More than 300 languages existed on the continent before European colonization, but centuries of genocide and almost 150 years of forced assimilation through government-run boarding schools robbed most Native Americans of their cultures, if not their lives. 

“It
was an indoctrination process,” said Sheilah Nicholas, an Indigenous
culture and language professor at the University of Arizona and a member
of the Hopi Tribe. “They couldn’t speak their language. They were
forced to immerse themselves in English.” 

While the age of
boarding schools may seem far in the past, the practice lingered until
the 1970s. Nicholas said a colleague of hers remembers getting her mouth
washed out with soap for speaking Hopi in school.  

As a result
of the collective experience, Indigenous people stopped speaking their
languages and didn’t pass them down to the next generations. Others
feared their children would be mistreated in school if they didn’t speak
English.  

Nicholas was one of them. 

“My mother told me, at 8 years old, maybe I should put away my Hopi and focus on English,” she said. “And that’s what I did.” 

Of
14,000 San Carlos Apaches in Arizona, only 20% are fluent. Three of the
community’s 35 early childhood language teachers are fluent, and only
one of the roughly 350 high school students can say the same. 

Johnson said most of those who are fluent are 50 and older. 

“There’re
very few people outside the reservation that care about our Apache
language,” Kathy Kitcheyan, a language professor at San Carlos Apache
College and former chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, agreed. 
She said it is difficult to convince kids of the importance of learning
their language when everyone around them speaks English and when so much
of social media and pop culture is also in English. 

Marlowe
Cassadore, director of the San Carlos Apache Cultural Preservation
Office, works with Apache leaders to keep the language alive by creating
dictionaries and textbooks to teach new generations.

Progress is slow-moving. And as Native groups have worked to record
and preserve their vocabularies and grammars, they’ve at times butted
heads with nonprofits dedicated to language preservation, which
Indigenous critics say are far too willing to claim ownership over
Indigenous language materials.

As a result, Indigenous tribes are
increasingly trying to do this work on their own — but leaders
themselves have plenty of other concerns to deal with. “There are other
pressing issues such as crime [and] lack of housing that seem to take
over,” Cassadore said. “It’s not the intention not to prioritize
language and culture. It’s just that there are other pressing needs and
concerns.” 

But while preserving Indigenous languages may not be top-of-mind for
all Indigenous people, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Once the language
is gone,” he said, “the culture is gone.”  

Inspiring the youth 

San
Carlos Apache leaders fear their message is lost on the youth, who may
not understand the importance of preserving Indigenous languages in an
effort to keep cultural practices alive. 

One man on another reservation in Southern Arizona is trying a different approach.

Juan
Bule started making hip-hop music in 2017, when he was 18 years old.
Bule doesn’t just rap in English: He also raps in Yaqui, the language of
the Pascua Yaqui, a tribe with an 2,200-acre reservation south of
Tucson. 

There are about 19,000 Pascua Yaqui members across the
U.S. and Mexico. Four thousand live on the reservation in Arizona, and
only 500 fluent speakers remain in the U.S. Rapping in Yaqui makes him
feel closer to his community, Bule said in an interview in December.
He’s also received attention from tribal elders, who appreciate his
efforts to maintain the language and find new ways to make it appealing
to young people.

“It’s a dying culture, but I’m here to pick it
up,” Bule said as he stood outside the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival in
Phoenix just hours before his performance. “Whether these kids listen to
me or not, this next generation is it. I’m here to save them.”

Bule uses the stage name TataSonni, Yaqui for “GrandpaSonni.” “In the end, I’m the one they all look up to,” he explained.

So far, he’s released two songs in Yaqui on Apple Music: Melio and Move$. He plans to make more. 

“You’re gonna replay this song to figure out what I’m trying to say,” he said of Move$. “But only the realest know.” 

Bule’s
efforts to keep Yaqui alive aren’t confined to music. Last year, he
started a peer-to-peer youth mentor group on the reservation. The
youngest in the group is 7, and the eldest is 23.  

The group is
focused on maintaining language and culture, getting together often to
read in Yaqui and attend cultural ceremonies and other events. He’s
confident that the next generation will keep the language alive.  

“These
kids make me happy,” he said. “I know they’re following me.” He hopes
his music can provide a larger platform to preserve his culture. “We’re
all on a mission,” he added. “This is our life.” 

By knowing
Indigenous languages, tribal leaders say Native Americans can stay
connected with the cultural traditions of their tribe. Those who don’t
speak their language are missing part of their identity, said Cassadore,
the San Carlos Apache Cultural Preservation director.

While one
may be ethnically Apache, he said, those who don’t speak the language
are not culturally Apache. He cited the example of the Sunrise Ceremony,
a traditional rite held for Apache women after their first menstrual
cycle to symbolize their journey into adulthood.

The ceremony
traditionally contains 32 songs that explore Apache culture, history and
religious beliefs. Without knowledge of Apache language, the lyrics are
meaningless, Cassadore said.  

“Those kinda things will be lost
because you won’t understand what the songs are about,” he said. “It’s
kinda empty to these people.”  

Speaking outside the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival, Bule said there’s a similar sentiment among the Pascua Yaqui. 

For those without the language, “it’s stripping your identity,” he said. “But that’s why I’m here.” 

Bule
grew emotional as he pondered the future of his culture. His face
reddened, and tears pooled in his eyes — though the resolute rapper held
them back. 

“It’s my life, bro,” he said. “I’m Yaqui. I say that shit with pride.” 

Putting words to paper 

While
Bule writes rhymes, others are turning to traditional ceremonies in an
effort to get young Indigenous people interested in their heritage. On a
warm June morning, a dozen young children danced around Tunlii
Community Center in Camp Verde, Arizona, as elders watched and cheered. 

Wearing
traditional dresses and sporting bows and arrows, these “little
warriors,” as their tribe calls them, danced to drum beats and songs as
their tribe celebrated the release of two new language tools and two
children’s books for the Yavapai-Apache Nation. 

“Our language is
who we are,” Yavapai-Apache Chairwoman Tanya Lewis told the crowd of
nearly 200 people. “This is a historical milestone. It means the world
to us.” 

Before the 1970s, the Apache language and many other Indigenous
languages weren’t commonly written down. A lack of resources made it
hard for some communities to standardize languages and develop
grammatical guidelines. 

That’s changed in recent decades, as
scholars have taken an interest in endangered languages like Apache —
and as Native community leaders have seen value in documenting this
important part of their culture. The Language Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated
to preserving endangered Indigenous languages, recently worked with
tribal members to develop dictionary apps and children’s books for both
Apache and Yavapai, the two Indigenous languages spoken by the tribe. 

The
apps operate like Google Translate. Users can type words in English,
Apache or Yavapai and receive a translation, definition and audio
recording of the pronunciation. It was those new tools that
Yavapai-Apache members celebrated last summer as they gathered on their
1,800-acre reservation.

It wasn’t the first time Indigenous people
in Arizona had worked with The Language Conservancy. Willem de Reuse, a
linguist from Belgium, helped write the first complete guide
on San Carlos Apache spelling and grammar. With help from tribal
leaders, he began developing a dictionary in the 1990s, completing the
project in 2017. 

For publishing help, de Reuse also turned to The
Language Conservancy, where he now works. The Language Conservancy
applied for grants on behalf of the tribe, using the money to develop
dictionary apps and children’s books.  

But while groups like the
Language Conservancy may have the funding and resources to help preserve
endangered languages, Indigenous people say there can also be drawbacks
to working with such groups. The nonprofit got into hot water in 2022,
after critics say it copyrighted language materials it had created for a Lakota tribe in South Dakota — then tried to sell those materials back to the tribe. 

Wilhelm Meya, founder of The Language Conservancy, denied accusations that the group takes advantage of tribes for profit.  

“Many
if not all [of] the allegations are untrue,” he said — calling the
controversy “distractions from the really pressing work that needs to be
done.” He stressed that The Language Conservancy had increased efforts
to communicate with tribes on how materials are used and developed, and
to ensure tribal archives always receive copies. 

Still, after centuries of exploitation, the scandal created tensions
between Indigenous people and one of the few groups willing and able to
help preserve linguistic materials. Beatrice Lee, director of the San
Carlos Apache Language Preservation Program, said she had a similar
problem with the group over the textbooks it created for her tribe. 

“Because of that, we put our foot down and said no more,” she said. The tribe cut ties with the group in 2023. 

Going
forward, Lee said she and others in the Indigenous community are more
careful to ensure their own autonomy. Kitcheyan, the language professor,
agreed. “We are responsible to teach our people,” she said. 

Hoping
to take the lead on language preservation, Lee’s office is constantly
applying for grants to further develop their language tools. Still,
resources are slim. With few others working to preserve these Indigenous
languages, there’s a dearth of Apache language materials online, Lee
said.

But in its efforts to create Apache language materials on
its own, the tribe has had some success. The San Carlos Apache Tribe
just completed production of its own dictionary. Developed with the help
of educators and students in the community, it’s slated to be released
in the next few weeks.

San Carlos Apache College offers two
language and culture classes to students, one of which is a graduation
requirement. That’s on top of efforts by both local teachers and private
companies to create Apache language versions of popular games like
Candy Crush, Word Puzzle and Kahoot!

Nonetheless, The Language
Conservancy controversy has left Indigenous leaders wary about sharing
language materials outside the tribe. While the San Carlos Apache
originally considered releasing their dictionary online to make it more
accessible for students, the tribe ultimately decided against it, said
Cordella Moses, curriculum specialist for the tribe’s language
preservation program.

“Everything else has been taken from us already,” she said. 

In
interviews, Indigenous people expressed a range of feelings about what
preserving their tribal languages meant for them. Nicholas, the
University of Arizona professor, said some young people feel hopeless
and disconnected from their community because they can’t speak the
language.  

“I know how you feel when people tell you that you aren’t Hopi,” she said.

Others,
like the rapper Bule, expressed faith that Indigenous languages were
here to stay — even if like all languages, they continued to change to
reflect the modern-day lives of Indigenous North Americans. “It’s like
the telephone game,” he said. “It just changes slightly down the line.” 

“We’re always gonna have to work at it,” Bule added, “but we’re always gonna be here.”