Coyote Stories: Looking into language extinction

I was going into the interview cold. I didn’t know the subject at that March 2014 meeting; she didn’t know me; anything could’ve happened. As a reporter, you have to be proactive and reactive for interviews, but I was not quite prepared for this one.

Pauline Stensgar, one of the last fluent speakers of one of my tribe’s ancient dialects, nxaamxčín (en-hump-cheen) Salish, looked around the room and said, “Every time I come in, I look. They’re all gone. They’re all dead. Now I’m sitting here all by myself. I guess I gotta do what I gotta do and continue — go, go, go far as I can go.”

Though there were several years, if not decades, of documentation of the language, the tribe had failed to create fluent speakers in the little time it had.

Among more than 9,000 members, not one had a grasp on the language like Pauline.

I got a knot in my stomach and felt emotional. To that point in my young career, there hadn’t been a moment that hit home like that. I felt partial responsibility for not doing my part in keeping a language alive.

Flash forward to October’s orientation to work for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a similar feeling came back upon learning the Cayuse language, weyiiletpuu, “disappeared.”

The news came as a surprise considering the CTUIR website states “language is a way of life and being. Within the phrases and words of our language is the history of our people and the strength and emotion of our tribal community.”

So was a way of life completely lost? I wondered why it happened and when it happened. The word “disappeared” seems so nonchalant when followed up by such passionate phrasing like that of the website.

Several online sources, varying in credibility, had conflicting dates in which the Cayuse language was lost. I read the late 1800s, then 1904 and also 1940. To an extent, perhaps all three could be correct. Maybe it was a slow die-off: word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, and person-by-person. I wondered when the last equivalent of the Colville Tribes’ Pauline Stensgar was for the Cayuse.

So I asked around.

“I’m still trying to get a grasp on that,” said Tribal member and Cayuse-Nez Perce speaker Fred Hill, whose ancestors spoke weyiiletpuu. “Why did our people resort to speaking Nez Perce rather than Cayuse? (Losing our language) is a tragic thing. Many of us have the blood of our ancestors in that we’re Cayuse Indians.”

I wondered if the museum had anything. I was pointed in the direction of Malissa Minthorn Winks, a Collection & Research Manager at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.

“The Cayuse language was extinct even as anthropologists and linguists were trying to record the language in the 1800’s,” she said. “There are only a limited number of words recorded in that language in writing.”

Sounds like it was just too late from that perspective, I thought. But then a pair of Pauline-like figures emerged through talking to Thomas Morning Owl, the Board of Trustees’ interpreter, who wowed me by speaking to me in my own language, nselxcin Salish.

“There were two ladies,” he said. “They were the chief speakers alive in the 1940s during World War II. And when they passed, the language died with them. Up to that time, there’s been no recordings, no documentation. (The loss of the language) was basically a mystery.”

Morning Owl said Hudson Bay Company workers noted a language shift in the Cayuse people in the early 1800s. It was apparent that many Cayuse were utilizing their own version of Nez Perce language, now referred to as Cayuse-Nez Perce, when trading with the company.

“There was a trader,” he said. “He did a language inventory back in the early contact years. And he made comments at that time noticing a language shift whereas the Cayuse people they traded with at Fort Nez Perce were beginning to primarily speak a form of Nez Perce.”

Cayuse (weyiiletpuu) and Nez Perce (nimiipuu) were two distinguishable languages, Morning Owl said. But Cayuse was even more unique, as there were no similar dialects nearby.

“It’s considered an isolate,” Morning Owl said, “but it could be related to Molalla (a language spoken by western Oregon tribes that died in the 1950s).”
Morning Owl’s son, Damien Totus, teaches Umatilla for the Tribe’s Language Program. He’s tried to work through a small document featuring some words in weyiiletpuu, but has struggled.

“We’re not well-versed in how to use it,” he said.

Morning Owl said there are letters in Cayuse – such as F, NG, and R — that don’t appear in other Tribal languages.

Hill, who proudly owned a food stand with his wife they called, “Cayuse-Yakama Frybread,” is still searching for answers in his own ancestry. At one point in history, a potentially Cayuse surname was changed from Aweo (Uh-we-oo) to Makai. His grandfather, Aweo, was one of the original allottees of the CTUIR, and Hill said Tribal members who had the letter “C“ and a dash were Cayuse members.

Though his Cayuse ancestry confounds him, Hill is still proud to speak and teach the Cayuse-Nez Perce language.

“I feel very humbled, yet I have a personal pride,” he said. “I’m also just so glad and willing to share it with my students and my grandkids.”
There just aren’t many answers to the language loss, Hill added.

“None of us can really have the answers for why we don’t have the Cayuse language,” he said. “We’re not the only language in the world that has had this happen.”

Morning Owl said the loss of the Cayuse language is a cautionary tale as other Tribal languages could potentially die out.

“(Losing the Cayuse language) really shows the dire, critical aspects of where we’re at with the language speakers right now,” he said. “There’s only a handful of language speakers that are living as part of the Tribe here. That’s what we have to build upon.”

Cary Rosenbaum is the interim editor of the CUJ.