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This ‘direct correlation’ to dying Native languages often unexamined

BRIGHTON — There’s a long list of reasons that Native languages have deteriorated and entered an endangered status.

The reasons that Native languages have deteriorated and entered an endangered status.

The reasons go back hundreds of years, and there are more modern day ones.

They include distractions that younger generations face every day in technology and within a mass media of television, movies and more. The mass media is dominated by the English language.

Other factors have to do with the state of education, including dwindling budgets for language programs and low teacher pay.

Many Tribal communities already have a shortage of fluent speakers.

Marcus Briggs-Cloud leads a recent Creek language immersion class at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton. (Damon Scott)

That’s just a taste of the challenges Native language preservation faces.

None of it is lost on Marcus Briggs-Cloud, the culture language instructor at the Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton, who has run the Creek immersion program there for the past five years.

No English is spoken in the program, only Creek. The rule applies to the kids (who start at a preverbal age), teachers, parents and elders who assist and participate.

Briggs-Cloud teaches those in the program from their preverbal days until age seven – the crucial time for learning the language fluently. In the first grade, the students are expected to transition into two hours of English schooling a day, but to also maintain Creek instruction for six hours of the day.

As a committed educator, Briggs-Cloud worries about all the reasons the language is in danger of dying, including one that he thinks doesn’t get the attention it should – the health of Tribal elders.

Jade Osceola and Alice Sweat talk to students, whose Creek names are Emvnicv Nunez, Ceyafkompe Cypress and Efeke-wvnhe Flood, during a language immersion class at PECS in Brighton. (Photo Damon Scott)

He said that without the elders, who are fluent in Creek, there is no immersion program. They take part in many of the program’s activities, and the nature of the work is often robust.

“Health is a major concern. What I consider the biggest threat to the survival of endangered languages is chronic illness that’s really preventable by better dietary management,” Briggs-Cloud said. “People are not talking about this.”

To help, he said the program recently revamped its food by cooking healthy meals and working with a dietician at the health clinic – Cecilia Kostadinov. The idea lasted for a few months.

“It was really good, everybody felt much better, energy levels were higher, the kids started eating the healthier food – so there was better brain function, everything about it was good,” Briggs-Cloud said, stressing he wished it had continued.

“If we don’t change the way we eat, there’s no hope for survival of the language, because elders are dying prematurely. You shouldn’t be dying in your 60s and taking the language with you,” he said.

Language immersion program student Hopanv Smith, her Creek name, talks with instructor Jewel Lavatta during a class. (Damon Scott)

Briggs-Cloud said that Tribal members currently have access to healthy food, unlike some, but that it’s a matter of making the conscious choice to incorporate it into a daily diet.

Even though the healthier food is available, he said many Tribal members aren’t educated in nutrition enough to make the proper decisions. It can result in diabetes and hypertension.

For example, after working with Kostadinov he and many in the program realized that some food they thought was healthy actually wasn’t.

“[She] tweaked all these recipes and we started making all our food from scratch using organic ingredients,” he said.

Briggs-Cloud now tries to spread the word that all language programs need to have healthy eating as a priority.

“There’s a direct correlation between poor health and language loss, because our elders who are language bearers are dying prematurely,” he said.

Even though the healthier cooking initiative ended, Briggs-Cloud instituted a walking and biking program.

This “weather wheel” helps students explain the weather in Creek instead of English. (Photo Damon Scott)

If a participant walks outside or uses a stationary bike for 30 minutes a day for 20 days they get $100. The funds come from various late fees paid by parents.

In addition, many of the staff have continued implementing the knowledge that Kostadinov taught them when preparing food at home.

“If you are not healthy, you cannot interact with these children,” he said. “When your blood sugar’s crashing, the last thing you want to do is be working with a child to impart language.”

Success nonetheless

The kids who started in the language immersion program completed a kindergarten curriculum last year as pre-K students.

“So they’re ahead by Western standards,” Briggs-Cloud said. “But what’s most important to me is they get a good cultural foundation, and that they understand that the word education does not exclusively connote Eurocentric curriculum, that we have our own canon of stories and our own epistemologies and ontologies that we need to demonstrate respect for, and have command of, and make sure they’re solidly integrated into the worldview we’re shaping for our students. It’s our responsibility to do that for our students.”

Indeed the PECS language immersion program has been held up as a model to observers and educators across the country and in Canada.

Many from different Tribes have come to the school to see how they can start a similar program of their own.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a staff reporter for The Seminole Tribune. Prior to moving to Florida, he was a reporter and editor for print and digital publications in his home state of New Mexico. When Damon’s not working on a story, you’ll probably find him at a hot yoga class or splashing around on some South Florida beach. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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