Linguist preserving Western Apache language

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

While growing up in Belgium, Dr. Willem de Reuse liked to read novels about the American West written by 19th-century German writer Karl May.

May, the best-selling German writer of all time, generally portrayed Native Americans as innocent victims of white aggression, and presented many of them as heroic characters with almost superhuman abilities.

De Reuse, an adjunct professor of English at the University of North Texas, says the books contained a few "badly misspelled" Apache words. Years later, he decided to attend graduate school in the United States and combine his interest in the Apache culture and other Native American cultures with his interest in linguistics. He earned his doctoral degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

Now the author of a recently published textbook of Western Apache grammar, de Reuse has received a $40,000 Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a searchable digital archive of texts written in Western Apache, which is mostly spoken on the San Carlos and White Mountain reservations in central eastern Arizona.

The archive will include children's stories, poems, myths, animal narratives, recipes, informal conversations and other texts that de Reuse gathered over 14 years of visiting the reservations. Each text will be in the original Western Apache and include an English translation.

De Reuse was one of 12 recipients of the NEH fellowship, and the only recipient from Texas. His project was designated an NEH "We The People" project for promoting knowledge and understanding of American history and culture.

De Reuse says the archive is a continuation of research he began in 1994, when he received six years of funding from the National Science Foundation to write a grammar guide and compile a dictionary of the Western Apache language.

"Western Apache has about 13,000 to 14,000 native speakers, but only about 1 percent to 5 percent of children enter kindergarten knowing how to speak it," he says. "The grandparents of the tribes are the dominant speakers, and the grandchildren sometimes can't communicate with them. The parents, who are in their 20s and 30s, are speaking only English to the children, feeling that it's too much trouble to teach them Apache. They don't seem to realize that bilingualism is a good thing."

The resistance to speaking and teaching Apache partly comes from the family experiences of tribal elders.

After Native Americans were allowed to become U.S. citizens in 1925, the U.S. government attempted to erase the languages of tribes. The elders who are the remaining native speakers today, and their parents, were sent to government-run boarding schools, where they were beaten for speaking their native languages.

The Native American Indians Act, signed by President George Bush in October 1990, reversed the U.S. government's policy to suppress Native American languages. A few years later, under the Clinton administration, the government began providing grants to tribes for language preservation.

Today, tribal members "may hear Apache spoken only at ceremonies," de Reuse says.

"What will happen when the children grow up? Will they be able to carry on the ceremonies?" he says. "There's not an awareness that the language is in serious trouble."

He says the textbook on the grammar of Western Apache spoken by the San Carlos tribe includes 20 lessons, an index of grammatical terms and topics, an index to verb paradigms and a San Carlos Apache-English glossary.

"Learning Apache is more complicated than learning Chinese or Japanese," says de Reuse, who is fluent in four languages but says he only has a "reading knowledge" of Apache and two other Native American languages. "Apache has a different word order to indicate passive and active verbs, and the verb always goes at the end of the sentence. You would say ‘The dog cat bit' instead of ‘The dog bit the cat.'"

He hopes the grammar textbook, as well as the digital archive, will be used by anthropologists, linguists and historians, as well as those wanting to learn or perfect Western Apache.

"The only published collection of texts in Western Apache dates from the early 20th century, and is a very poor spelling system," de Reuse says. "This dearth of accessible text material is unfortunate, considering the well-documented prominent position of Apache groups in the history and culture of the Greater Southwest."

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