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Yakama Elder Keeps Her Native Language Alive

Lots of people go back to school — whether it’s to re-train after a lay-off or to finally get a degree after life events have delayed one’s education. But it’s not that often a person in their 80s pursues a doctorate.

That’s what Virginia Beavert is doing at the University of Oregon. The Yakama elder is studying linguistics and teaching her native language Sahaptin. As part of KLCC’s special issues series, Rachael McDonald tells Beavert’s story.

Virginia Beavert was born in Oregon’s Blue Mountains.

 Virginia Beavert
  Virginia Beavert

Virginia Beavert: “I was born in a bear cave (laughs). The hunting trip was caught in a big storm and all their horses died and they found shelter in a bear cave and my mother was very pregnant I guess and my dad told me he tried to make her stay home and she wouldn’t stay home.”

Beavert had to do some research to find out her birthday. She believes it was November 30th, 1921.

Virginia Beavert: “My first language was Nez Perce because a lot of my uncles that I followed around and pestered spoke Nez Perce.”

With a cap of short grey hair, and sparkling eyes behind her glasses, Beavert sits at a table in her office on the U of O campus. She remembers her elders told stories about how to live in the world.

Virginia Beavert: “They all have lessons in them. So I kind of grew up that way and I also grew up with the whip man.”

She says if one child in the village did something wrong, all of them had to line up for the whip man.

Virginia Beavert: “If somebody does something that’s dangerous that they’re not supposed to do, then we’re supposed to tell him, don’t do that, the whipman will come.  We’re also responsible if he does something wrong, so we all get wacked, you know.”

Beavert says the whipman didn’t beat children; he slid a bundle of sticks across each one’s back.

Virginia Beavert: “He doesn’t really hurt you. It’s more like scare you. And you’ll remember next time that if you’re going to do something wrong you’d better think about it.”

As a child, Beavert heard Clickitat from her grandmother, Yakama from her mother and Umatilla from her father. She says all those languages are dialects of Sahaptin.

Years ago, Beavert’s stepfather encouraged her to study linguistics at Central Washington University. He was working on a Sahaptin dictionary at the time.

Beavert says, at first, she didn’t want to go back to school. She’d been to college. She’d been in the army. She even worked at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation after World War II.

Virginia Beavert: “And I argued that I was too old to go back to school and finally I relented. And when I came out I took over his project and completed his dictionary.”

Her stepfather passed away before she finished the dictionary. That was when Beavert was in her early 40s. Now in her 80s, this elder, with her quick smile and ready giggle is again in school. She’s working on her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Oregon. She’s also teaching Sahaptin.

Jerome Viles: “I feel extremely blessed to be able to be in this class. I don’t think there’s a lot of places in the world where you could have this type of opportunity and be able to learn from an elder in a university setting and be able to learn an indigenous language like this.”

Carson Viles: “It’s been really good to get a chance to learn from a native speaker and an elder. A lot of people in college want to go to a certain university to learn from a professor who they’ve read the books of or has a good reputation and I would compare it to that, this is the best situation possible.”

Viola Minthorne: “My family’s known for linguistics in Umatilla. And they thought this class would help me to understand our language and it has. I want to keep our language alive. Keep our culture alive. It’s just important to me.”

Jerome and Carson Viles and Viola Minthorne are all members of Northwest tribes and make up three tenths of this class. The Sahaptin Ichishkin program is part of the U of O’s Northwest Indian Language Institute.

Beavert says Sahaptin and other Native American languages are endangered.

Virginia Beavert: “Of course, a lot of my relatives are dying now and taking that language with them. A lot of them too haven’t been teaching their own children to speak the language. My nieces and nephews, they can understand, but they can’t speak it.”

Beavert’s assistant Roger Jacob is from the Yakama tribe. He came to the U of O to study with Beavert. He says it’s important to preserve the language.

Roger Jacob: “Language is the foundation of culture. Without the language, I think we just look a little different from everybody else. I think without the language we end up adopting the culture of the people around us and those differences, that uniqueness is lost.”

Jacob says it’s an amazing opportunity having a Yakama elder in an *academic setting.

Roger Jacob: “For anybody, Indian or non-Indian, to be able to spend time with somebody with as much experience and who’s willing to be so open and share I think is something they realize is pretty rare.”

Graduate student Joana Jansen is helping Beavert develop teaching materials for the class.  Jansen says Sahaptin grammar is very different from any other language she can think of. She says the sentence structure is nothing like English.

Joana Jansen: “Single words are entire sentences that express all kinds of information. In English we’d need ten words to say that and in Sahaptin, it’s just a word that you need to know how to put together properly. We’ve used pinásapawiisklika, he or she turns themselves around, where that’s just one word but all those ideas are in there.”

Virginia Beavert’s Sahaptin class counts toward the language requirement for a Bachelor’s degree. Beavert brought a couple of her students to the Umatilla Reservation in northeastern Oregon for a language knowledge bowl early this month.

Virginia Beavert: “We brought home the trophy. First Place. Our three little speakers were very aggressive and they put to practice what they’re learning here. The contest was the first of its kind. At the end you know we had a lot of support for the Ducks, they call themselves the Ducks… xátxat”.


University of Oregon Northwest Language Institute