Seated around tables in Prescott, Ariz., Yavapai elders swap stories, learn who’s related to whom, and gossip in their fluid tongue.
Ladies with a lifetime of experience etched on their faces converse in "Yavaglish" when the right word just isn’t available in Yavapai. Elders from the Prescott, Camp Verde and Fort McDowell reservations compare notes on pronunciation, terms and location names, rapidly switching between Yavapai and English. But there’s more to this gathering than simply giving people a place to chat and exchange information: This meeting of minds seeks to keep their 10,000-year-old language and culture alive.
Saving the Yavapai language or any Native American language from extinction involves more than just writing down words and working out sentence structure. Keeping the West’s first languages vibrant and alive seems to require nothing less than preserving or — in some cases — renewing an entire culture.
That’s what the three surviving bands of Yavapai, who once roamed 20,000 square miles of central Arizona, are discovering as they develop a program to preserve their language. The group is composed of Yavapai speakers with varying levels of fluency — elders, tribal leaders and young people. They come together to learn more about or strengthen their understanding of one of humankind’s oldest surviving tongues.
The meetings rotate among the three reservations. Participants complete questionnaires indicating their band, language fluency and cultural expertise. They also describe what they are willing to do to pass on what they know.
Ted Vaughn, a member of the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe and one of the leading proponents of Yavapai preservation, helps lead the discussions. Vaughn has developed an interactive language program that allows people to see and hear a word simultaneously. He feels keenly the urgency to save his ancestral tongue, and the U.S. Census Bureau agrees: It reports that fewer than 100 fluent Yavapai speakers remain.
Freida Ann Eswonia, who lives at the Yavapai-Apache Nation’s community near Camp Verde, points out one big challenge. Yavapai fluency skipped a generation because of Indian boarding schools, forced adoptions and attempts at cultural assimilation. Although Yavapai language classes are held at the three reservations, Eswonia says that one child wistfully asked her, "When we learn Yavapai, who are we going to talk to?"
The challenge to introduce Yavapai youth to their ancestral language doesn’t stop with just learning Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation’s national anthem. Cultural activities like basket weaving, gathering of traditional foodstuffs and learning the old songs all play a role in keeping a language alive.
Keeping Native languages vital also has implications off the reservation, says Greg Glassco, cultural resources director of the Prescott tribe.
If a tribe retains its original language, he says, that will help it make claims under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act for cultural items held by museums or other institutions, Glassco says. Language can also moderate the explosive development that’s taking place throughout Arizona on what was once the Yavapai homeland.
"There is also a provision that a discovery of a burial requires halting construction until the tribe determines disposition of the remains," Glassco says. The Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe is moving forward with a project to identity all Yavapai settlements as well as sacred and burial sites across traditional Yavapai country.
But central Arizona’s first residents possess possibly the greatest gift for Arizona’s expanding population: the ancient knowledge of how to deal with climate change. The Yavapais have lived in the deserts, mountains and pine forests for centuries. They have endured fire, flood and extended drought, and their knowledge of this region of extremes is unmatched. The Yavapai language encodes this intimate, exhaustive knowledge of the land, animals and plants, as well as knowing how to survive the worst that Mother Nature can throw at us.
In my own tongue, for example, we have no less than nine different words for acorn, depending on the species, size and time of year acorns are harvested. This is one of the world’s most perfect food sources – just what you need for when the going gets tough. It’s useful to know things like that, and to have the words to say it.