That’s the title of an article by Jack Hitt in today’s NY Times Magazine. It’s about the amazing increase in Native American population in recent decades, an increase fueled by change in self-identification rather than birth rates (and no, it’s not about cashing in on casinos). There’s a good deal about language, and the conclusion is that language-learning is a good way to prove who’s really serious about belonging.
Laura Redish sees language revival at the heart of the new anxiety of identity: ”It also takes a commitment to learn a language. I’ve noticed that urban mixed bloods, especially, want to learn—to not be wannabes. And language shows they are serious about connecting to who they are.”
From a small country lane in Connecticut, Stephanie Fielding rambled down a few dirt roads to a small clearing beside a rushing river. Her great-great-great-aunt Fidelia Fielding died in 1908, and a memorial stone dominates the sloping cemetery here. Fidelia was the last speaker of Mohegan. Today, Stephanie Fielding is devoted to reviving the language that Fidelia Fielding spoke. She travels from library to library scouring books and ancient missionary letters and documents. She is putting together her ancestral language, brick by brick, word by word.
You might mistake Stephanie Fielding for just another nice-looking lady with reddish hair and, judging from that name, British extraction. But she is a member of the wealthiest Indian tribe in America—the Connecticut Mohegans, whose members divide the revenue from two lucrative casinos. Fielding is 59, and she has devoted the rest of her life to reviving her great-great-great-aunt’s language. This June, she received her master’s degree in linguistics from M.I.T. Like so many people devoted to language restoration, she admires the example of Hebrew, a language that essentially died more than two millennia ago, surviving only as a sacred text. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a Zionist linguist took on the painstaking work of confecting a modern, slangy, day-to-day tongue out of the hallowed idiom of Moses. Fielding is trying to do the same, and then some. She doesn’t begin with a body of Scripture, like the revivers of Hebrew had, but with not much more than some missionaries’ notes and transcripts of long-dead speakers. Most of Fielding’s work at M.I.T. has focused on creating a kind of linguistic algorithm that will permit her to take many of the accepted proto-Algonquian words and generate an authentic Mohegan vocabulary. Her tribe has commissioned her to put together a dictionary and a grammar to give the next generation a voice from the past.
Because it is time-consuming and difficult to learn any language, the commitment it takes to attend one of Wendy Geniusz’s camps or to sign on with Fielding’s work or to participate in any of the widespread Native American language revivals weeds out the easy hobbyists and leaves a cohort of Indians whose authenticity—regardless of genealogy or blood quantum—may one day be hard to question.
”Language is an important vehicle of transmission of culture,” says Angela Gonzales, a Hopi Indian and an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University. ”Some tribes resist letting any outsiders even speak their language. But that’s why language is important. It’s a great vehicle for the storage of important inaccessible cultural material.” Since it is no longer enough for a man passing you on the street to look Indian, maybe the next generation will note in passing that that guy certainly sounded Indian. In 50 years, many of the tribes now being dissed as wannabes will have age, tradition and solemnity on their side. Who will be around to question their authenticity? Far more likely is the possibility that the reshaping of American identity, among Indians as well as other ethnicities, will simply be accepted as the way it always was and always was meant to be.
Incidentally, there’s a nice page of “Original Tribal Names of Native North American People” on Redish’s Native American languages site; it focuses on Eastern and Plains tribes, but presumably they’ll be adding West Coast and other tribes as time goes on. (Thanks to Eliza at Wordorigins.org for bringing this page to my attention!)