Teresa McCarty § National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

“Reclaiming the ‘Cultural Language’: Youth and Indigenous Language Continuance”

Teresa L. McCartyTeresa L. McCarty2011–2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Resident ScholarTeresa L. McCarty2011–2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

Citing Acoma poet Simon Ortiz’s book, Woven Stone, Teresa McCarty says, “The title of the book is a reference to his father’s craft as a stonemason and the idea that the blocks of stone are woven together by this mortar, but it’s also a metaphor for culture and for intergenerational continuance of people over time. The idea is that people are also bound together in these interstices of language and culture that continue and that bind together a whole. Language, to me, is the mortar in all of that.”

The importance of preserving “endangered” languages is not something that everyone instinctively grasps, but McCarty does. Experts in the field predict the demise of up to 90 percent of the world’s languages by the end of the twenty-first century, most of them indigenous. McCarty intends to reverse this trend. She has spent more than thirty years working in Southwestern Native communities and in academia, collecting data and conducting interviews. Now she’s bringing together the fruits of her experience and research in a book that she hopes will help indigenous communities revitalize and maintain their language and culture.

As part of her research, McCarty first gathered information from adults in Arizona’s educational system. One teacher told her, “Nobody speaks the Native language anymore… Young people don’t know anything about their language.” McCarty had the impression that the youth had been largely assimilated into American culture and were not concerned about the loss of their own language. So when she began interviewing young people, she was surprised to find that many are passionate about learning their cultural language and perpetuating it. As one young girl told her, “Knowing the Native language helps me not lose the identity of who I am, of where I come from.”

But their passion is layered with complex emotions, as evidenced in the words of a Navajo teen named Jonathan. He has an expression for what his people feel: “the long-walk syndrome,” referring to the continuing effects of the deadly 450-mile walk that the US government forced Navajos and Mescalero Apaches to take from their native lands to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the 1860s. They were kept for four years on the Bosque Redondo reservation, where Jonathan says their language was beaten out of them, leaving a sense of “self-hate” in his people with which even his generation still struggles. McCarty says, “Attitudes and ideologies are not uniform across or within communities. Even a single individual can hold competing feelings: yearnings for their heritage, but also feelings of resistance, fear, and shame. I think that it’s going to be a challenge to present this information in a way that makes sense and that readers can understand—that individuals can hold all of these contradictions, which they’re constantly grappling with and that influence their decisions about what they’re going to do.”

McCarty says SAR has given her the chance to really “go in” and look at all of her research with fresh eyes to see if she can ferret out more of the nuances that will enhance understanding of the complex nature of revitalizing language and culture for Native Americans. “I think that what these youth narratives are suggesting is that for language revitalization to work, you have got to get the youth involved in the on-the-ground language planning and making community commitments to language regeneration. We can’t just do it to youth; youth have to be the drivers in the process.”

Regarding her time at SAR, McCarty says, “As I reflect back on these nine months, it has been an incredibly intellectually enriching experience, but it’s fed not just my intellect, it’s fed my soul. The fellowship with other scholars, people who are doing things that are very different from what I’m doing, the fellowship with the staff and the board, the bringing together of all these people from different backgrounds—this is a lesson in how and why linguistic and cultural diversity is an enabling condition for humans. It’s a lesson in the intellectual wealth that we possess by virtue of our diversity.”

Find out more about Teresa McCarty by visiting the SAR website (opens in new browser window).

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