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After just about forty years of teaching students from all over the continent, I came to believe, grudgingly, that no geographic group adored their “homeland” with more lovesick passion than kids from the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds, being away, brayed like starved mules the whole time they were marooned here in Iowa, as if home was life-breath–oh, how perfectly gorgeous those Olympics were, or how blessed it was to grow up at the foot of Mt. Baker. Plainsmen like me had to learn how to walk away graciously.
I never taught a Lummi student, but there’s no reason to assume Native kids from the Pacific Northwest would be any less stricken. The Lummis, also known as Lhaq’temish(LOCK‐tuh‐mish), or “People of the Sea,” live and have their being straight west of Bellingham, Washington, on a seaside reservation that includes a lot of water and has been their home (take a breath here) for roughly 12,000 years.
Stunning, isn’t it?–12,000 years.
A decade ago or so, I talked to a Lummi elder, who showed me around his world. There we stood over the precious waters home to so much of their diet and the heart and soul of their traditions. He was a proud man, proud of his homeland, proud of his people. When we got on the subject of the Lummi tongue, he beamed when he described the newly instituted language program they were developing in Lummi schools. Then he said this: “In five years maybe, we’ll have all our kids speaking the traditional Lummi language.”
Sure, I thought. Fat chance. If those kids spent their mornings watching Spongebob Squarepants, English was going to be tough to strike. Their tribal language, their version of the North Straits Salish language, no matter how beloved, was still going to sound, well, foreign to their kids.
Up on the Ojibwa reservation in northern Minnesota several years ago, a man who could still speak the old language told us he thought there were less than ten like him. I’ve been around enough Navajos to know that they too worry. What I’m saying is, that Lummi elder could well have been Lakota, Omaha or Osage. Among Native tribes across the land, re-engaging people with traditional language has become something of a sacred mission, and a commendable one, I’ve always thought, but more than a little pie-in-the-sky in a media-saturated environment.
Strangely enough, it took a Jewish writer describing the Hebrew language for me to be less cavalier about such projects, even though his arguments had nothing to do with reservation life or crimes perpetuated in the name of Manifest Destiny. What Robert Alter does in The Art of Bible Translation is make dozens of Old Testament stories come alive simply by unpacking the nuance the original Hebrew language brings to those tales. What’s more, he illustrates vividly how flat biblical stories can be rendered when a translator, no matter how devoted, fails to attend to traditional usages.
My grandmother, raised at the turn of the 20th century in the Oostburg (WI) Dutch Reformed Church, told me she had memorized the Heidelberg Catechism in the Dutch language, even though she couldn’t speak much of it herself–her great-grandparents had immigrated in the late 1840s. For most of my life when I’d tell people that story, I’d giggle at the nuttiness. Still do, a little.
But having read some of Robert Alter, I’m not so quick to think of that rigidity as dead orthodoxy or plain pig-headedness. I’m far too old to campaign for Dutch language training in Sioux County schools. Besides, it would make no sense.
But neither will I snicker as I once did about that Lummi elder’s linguistic passions a decade ago. Nor will I giggle at my ancestors’ fool stubbornness about worshiping the Lord in English. The Bible taught me not to.