She builds new words in an ancient tongue

  • Reba Teran

    Mike McClure

Name: Reba Teran

Vocation: Language coordinator, Shoshone Cultural Center in Fort Washakie, Wyoming

Age: 50

Known for: Compiling a 9,000-word audio dictionary of the Shoshone language

She says: "We’re trying to save our culture without a language. But you can’t have a whole culture without language."

It’s not easy to translate a modern word like "computer" into Shoshone, a language that seems as old as the sloping foothills that cradle the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming. But that’s just what Reba Teran, a small 50-year-old Shoshone woman, is trying to do in a neatly organized back room at the Shoshone Cultural Center in Fort Washakie.

Here Teran sits with two Shoshone elders, a man and a woman, and listens as they speak deliberately into a microphone hooked up to a computer. Alternating between languages, the elders first say the Shoshone word for computer, "duh-zee-poe-gee-d," then its English counterpart. On the monitor, blue and pink lines rise and fall with their voices.

Teran, who has a master’s degree in instructional technology from Utah State University, is using very modern computer software to help preserve a language thousands of years old. Her goal: to create an audio dictionary of the Shoshone language before it slips away from her people.

Teran has spent the past two years assembling a 9,000-word dictionary, the largest existing compilation of Shoshone words. When her project is complete, she hopes to distribute CD-ROMs of the audio dictionary to interested members of her tribe. "We have to learn our language," says Teran. "I wanted to teach to reach the world, and multimedia is how this will happen."

For Teran, it’s now or never. Government policies at American Indian boarding schools in the 1800s and early 1900s banned children from speaking their native languages (HCN, 1/21/02: Finding the words). As a result, an entire generation lost much of its language, and parents struggled to pass the language on to their children. Today, Teran estimates that only 20 percent of her tribe can carry on a conversation in Shoshone.

Teran herself is relearning the language she spoke fluently until she began first grade, where children at her public school were encouraged to speak English. She is the first college graduate in her family, an achievement she credits to her older brother, who was killed in a car accident when Teran was 13. She still remembers his advice: "Brush your teeth, go to college, and learn your Indian ways." Teran left the reservation for several years, attending college off and on and pushing on through graduate school.

Now, Teran must help her native language catch up to modern times. She and the elders have had to fashion new words from existing sounds: The Shoshone word "ambulance," for instance, is "nuh-mah-dah-heen-qwy-hah-noy-d," which, combined, translates to "injured transporter." They’ve built the word "computer" from the Shoshone sounds for "something that writes."

As Teran wades through her native language, she’s rediscovering far more about her culture than just words. "Our language is very visual and very comical. You can make yourself laugh for hours just by talking." In Shoshone, explains Teran, words are really stories. You don’t just say the words "fall down." Instead, you describe someone running forward, sliding, rolling, legs flying up in the air.

If her people can once again regain their descriptive language, Teran believes much more will follow. "We’re trying to save our culture without a language. But you can’t have a whole culture without language."

For now, Teran is working to get more computers, staff and money to continue her tribally funded project. Still, she is optimistic: "We have our language now. We’re getting a start on saving it." And she may be right. Teran says that, for the first time in more than 40 years, she’s dreaming in Shoshone.

The author works for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming.

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