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Vanishing tongues: UA doctoral student wins conservation award for work in revitalizing near-extinct languages

Several years ago, Phillip Cash Cash listened to an inner voice telling him to attempt reviving near-extinct languages of his ancestors, and he decided to answer its calling.

As a result, the Cayuse/Nez Perce tribal member of the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, was given the Buffett Award for Indigenous Leadership in Conservation last month.

Cash Cash, 41, is working on a degree in the joint Ph.D. program in anthropology and linguistics at the University of Arizona. He'll use the $25,000 award to continue his language documentation work, elder outreach and cultural research.

But his primary goal is to encourage more people to learn near-extinct native languages, such as Nez Perce. Of the 3,000 or so Nez Perce people in Oregon, Idaho, Washington state and parts of western Canada, only about 60 speak it fluently, he said.

"It's really going to help me bring people together to look at the state of our languages and find ways to revitalize them," he said.

One of the ways he contributes is via the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendelton, Ore., which represents the cultures of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Wallula peoples through exhibits and cultural tourism.

"Much of the rare language materials I will be collecting as a part of my research under the Buffett Award will be deposited here," Cash Cash said.

Ofelia Zepeda, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona, has been Cash Cash's adviser and mentor.

"The field of linguistics in general has basically trained or degreed very few American Indians, particularly those who speak or work on their own language," Zepeda said, noting that the Ph.D. program at the UA, of all linguistics departments nationwide, has graduated the largest number so far: six.

"Phillip has a deep interest in working on his own language," Zepeda said. "At the same time, all native speakers have a primary interest in returning to their communities, where they continue to do language research, teaching, documentation, dictionary making and so forth."

Zepeda, who is Tohono O'odham and has a doctorate in linguistics from the UA, said language is one of the most direct ways a person can help a community, especially those that have already lost much of their language.

Linguistics was a natural path for Cash Cash because of his upbringing.

"I grew up in a multilingual community in northeast Oregon where it was common to hear five to seven languages," he said.

His appreciation for languages and culture also came from his maternal grandparents who played key roles in raising him, he said.

He remembers going home during school breaks to visit them, and they would turn to each other, as if he weren't there, and say in Nez Perce, "Kla 'iske 'etx wisix nimipuu," or, "It is just like he is becoming a real human being, a Nez Perce."

"They would say it knowing I could hear them," Cash Cash said, noting that what they were doing was reassuring themselves and him that his leaving his land and people had not ruined him.

"Their teachings echo in my mind. My grandmother would tell me, 'You live your life, and it is with goodness in your heart. You go forward and make sure that all is well with your people and your land.' "

His grandparents, Clarence Thompson Burke and Annette Blackeagle Burke, died in the late 1980s.

That's why revitalizing their languages, especially Nez Perce, is so important to him.

One of his tasks will be recording speakers to capture the most accurate representation of the language as it is heard today and to make note of the variations among speakers.

And though Cash Cash knows his work and his goals are important, winning the Buffett Award came as a surprise to him. He said he expected it to go to someone more focused on land conservation rather than language preservation.

Ecotrust, the nonprofit organization that conferred the award, is dedicated to supporting the emergence of a conservation along North America's rain-forest coast, the region from San Francisco to Anchorage, Alaska.

"Phillip Cash Cash's work addresses the full range of the challenges facing his people in a most powerful and effective way," said Ecotrust President Spencer B. Beebe, who was on the jury panel.

"Language reflects that which has survived thousands of years and captures the essential information that has helped its speakers to adapt through time," said Beebe, noting that the award goes to an individual whose leadership has improved the social, economic, political or environmental conditions in his or her community.

For example, the Cayuse language is extinct and will be impossible to revitalize, Cash Cash said.

"We have only about 1,000 words in Cayuse. That's not enough," he said, noting also that current Nez Perce speakers are "aged individuals. It's rare that there are speakers of my generation."

Because of this, he said, transmission of the language is no longer taking place.

He plans to revitalize the language by teaching at a university or by starting a school after receiving his doctorate.

"Language is one of the key factors to our identity, because it tells us who we are and where we come from.

"Our people believe that when the world was created, it was ordered in a particular way," he said. "At the same time, the people are named by the Creator, and it is by that name that we are known."

His name, Phillip Cash Cash, comes from his ancestor, Yiix Yiix Qaash Qaash. The hawk, he said, is the inherited spirit power in the Cash Cash lineage.

But he wasn't always known as Phillip Cash Cash. Until 1998, he was known as Phillip E. Minthorn Jr., a name taken by his family in the late 1800s when his people were moved by force to Oklahoma.

"Our people were sick, they had little food and no one would help them," he said.

Then, he said, an English doctor arrived, and he did help. It was a Dr. Minthorn. And his family, along with others, adopted the name, which became official when the people returned to Oregon and were required to sign for land, making a record of their names.

In 1998, however, the Oregon native became Phillip Cash Cash, a name he believes has always been his.

--written by Elena Chabolla, Daily Star staff

Additional Reading

  Language Revitalization
  Nez Perce Culture
  Plateau Indians
  Native Americans of Oregon
  Native American Cultures

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