Cocopah language class seeks to keep ancient tongue from dying out

JOE RODRIQUEZ teaches the proper way to pronounce a series of Cocopah words during a recent language class at the Cocopah West Reservation.

Bingo may help rescue an ancient language from the brink of extinction. Cocopah Indian Tribe elders, educators and cultural authorities are struggling to preserve the tribe's dying language.

"We don't want to be like those tribes you hear about where they have no language speakers or recordings," said Felicia Gutierrez, a language preservation specialist for the tribe. "Today we don't know our language as much. It could be extinct pretty soon, so we just want to revive it."

The Cocopah Museum, which develops cultural programming for the tribe, began offering language classes to children nine years ago.

Classes this summer mark the first time the opportunity has been extended to adult tribal members, as well as nonnatives who work for the tribe.

Playing a language-version of bingo during those classes seems to be slowly breathing life into words that could have been silenced forever.

Students use specially-made bingo cards designed with rows of simple, but useful, Cocopah words. Players listen carefully as the teacher calls out word after word, crossing out each lucky word with bright-colored markers. Skits are also used to teach the language.

To recover the language, Cocopah leaders are essentially relying on the same setting that started its deterioration: the classroom.

Leaders explain that mainstream society's battle to wipe out the Cocopah language began in the mid-1900s, when school teachers would strike children, like Gutierrez, for speaking their native tongue. She grew up speaking only Cocopah in her family's home and she learned English in school in nearby Somerton.

"They would hit my hands in school every time I spoke my language," Gutierrez said. "But I didn't understand (why), not as a child ..."

Gutierrez and Lisa Wanstall, director of the Cocopah Museum, explained that widespread knowledge of the language began to fade in the 1950s and started to disappear in earnest by the 1960s. Wanstall stressed that boarding schools, missionaries and public schools all pushed local natives to abandon their languages and adopt English.

"They pushed the tribal community to be involved with town people, and our clothing and food we ate changed," Wanstall said. "Then in the last two decades, we have seen a lot more television and movies come into play. You have all these distractions taking them away from their culture, so we have to fight really hard."

The number of fully fluent speakers of Cocopah dipped down to "just a handful" in recent years. But the tribe's classes and overall rededication to the language seem to be working when the spoken language can be heard among tribal friends when they chat.

"A lot of elders speak the language," Wanstall said. "People in their 30s and 40s do understand and usually speak the language, but the younger ones are where we are losing it ... You hear the language on a daily basis. There is a native speaker in almost every home ... Some tribal members do their prayers in Cocopah."

Teaching the language presents an impressive challenge, according to tribal officials. The Cocopah language traditionally was never a written language. A university student created the first written form in the 1970s for a dissertation but unfortunately for the tribe, the words presented tended to be too academic and not very applicable to everyday life.

"There was some communication with tribal leaders when it was developed, but not much. It's there, but it's really not useful," Wanstall said. "We came in and we changed a lot of it. We had to develop a new alphabet about four years ago."

Another challenge for leaders has been designing words to describe modern objects and notions.

"For us to create new words for 'microwave' or 'refrigerator' we have to ask the elders," Wanstall said. "Every word, everything we are teaching has to go through the elders. We ask them 'How can we say this? Is this the most appropriate way?'"

If the leaders' recent efforts do fail, they have a safety net to help ensure that their language isn't lost forever. The museum staff has recorded countless examples of the language being spoken. The recordings are archived within the safety of the museum repository.

Student Miguel Herrera, 25, said the class has revived the language that he used to speak as a child.

"I used to know it when my grandparents were around because that's all they spoke," Herrera said. "I have a son that's 5 who probably knows more than me! His grandma speaks to him, and he's around a lot of the elders more than I am. He'll correct me, too, 'No daddy, it goes like this.'"

But for Wanstall, the preservation goes beyond childhood memories.

"Our language is so important to us because it was given to us by our creator," she said. "This is an ancient language. It belongs to us and it's special and sacred. It's part of our identity as a culture and the various traditions we do to maintain who we are as Cocopahs."


Darin Fenger can be reached at or 539-6860.


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