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Program seeks to preserve Quechan tribal language for future

By Anne Slagill
Yuma, Arizona (AP) 8-09

When it comes to saving their native language, the Quechan people say they believe children are the future.

Judith Prietta directs the Quechan Indian tribe’s language preservation program. Prietta says her team targets young people because “the little ones learn quick.”

There are currently 93 preschool students learning Quechan words for colors, numbers and animals.

“Kids are like little sponges,” Prietta said. “Even with teenagers I see a difference, they are slower than the young ones. But I tell them, ‘If you want, you can pick it up.”’

The language program is open to tribal members of all ages, however. The program has been in place for five years and the tribe currently boasts about 100 fluent speakers, according to Prietta. Classes are voluntary and available at no charge to anyone who would like to learn.

“It’s our effort as a tribe to preserve our language.”

Prietta said Quechan was her first language, passed down to her by her grandparents. She grew up speaking Quechan at home, but things changed when she began to attend school.

“In the ‘30s, when we started school, we weren’t supposed to say anything in Quechan. We had to learn to speak English,” she said. “We got punished for speaking our language.”

As time went on, English was used more frequently at home. Children began to only learn English, rather than becoming bilingual. Prietta said she regrets that her own children never learned to speak Quechan.

“My kids don’t speak, but they understand,” she said.


Now she is trying to bring back the traditional language, but there have been a few roadblocks. She said that she and the other fluent speakers forget words from time to time, and have to consult one another or the tribal elders.

Also, there are no Quechan words for modern items like computers. Prietta said at some point they will have to sit down and think up names for newer technology, but for now she doesn’t worry too much if students use imperfect words and grammar.

“This is slang what we speak. We don’t teach them the old way. It will change again. These kids will bring up another slang.”

She said the tribe is associated with a language specialist from University of California-Berkeley who helps with the spelling of words. There is also a Quechan dictionary, but it is not yet complete.

The language preservation team speaks Quechan at work, and all of them try to speak Quechan in front of children. Prietta said immersion is key to learning a new language, so the fluent speakers try to expose others to the traditional words as often as possible.

“If the kids heard it 24 hours a day, they would pick it up fast,” she said.

Other tribes have made similar efforts to preserve cultural identity and language. The Cocopah tribe has been offering classes in its traditional language for 11 years.

Prietta said she hopes the language program will help Quechan youths retain a sense of cultural pride.

“I stress that if you are a Quechan you have to learn your language. You have to learn your culture, we have a beautiful heritage.”

She sees the program as a way to honor those who have passed.

“The elders that left us took the language with them, and now we have to get it back.