When the last native speaker of the Catawba language Sallie Brown passed away in 1952, the language was on the verge of dying with her.
"Once you start losing speakers, it's very hard to stop the spiral downward and regain them," says Blair Rudes, a linguist at UNC Charlotte who specializes in reconstructing lost Native American languages. The process of recovery is complex, requiring among other things, a unified population committed to teach the language to future generations. But since 1993, the 2,000 members of the Catawba Nation have been anything but unified.
Bitter disputes over tribal politics and finances have pushed cultural preservation efforts to individuals operating without much coordination. Rudes documents the language on his own. Anna Brown, the great-granddaughter of the last native speaker Sallie Brown, helped start the first formal language programs at the Catawba Cultural Center, but eventually severed ties with the Center after clashing with the formerly employed Canadian-born linguist over pronunciation.
Brown's interest in learning Catawba sparked in the early 1990s when she became pregnant. She planned on teaching her son the language from birth so that he would become a native speaker 40 years after her great-grandmother had passed away. "I was going to teach him nothing but Catawba," Brown says. "He was going to have to learn English when he went to school but when he was home, he would be speaking nothing but Catawba." Her son died in childbirth, and she has since gotten divorced. Without children, she thinks of herself as a community parent, applying the same commitment to any child eager to learn.
Brown now tutors from her home. She starts off her students with a note card with five words on them. Once they've learned them, she gives them another note card with five more words. "I want to be a culture educator for our children while I'm here because once I'm gone, I don't know who else is going to have the heart or the desire to do it and love it like I do. I want to go out of this world like my great grandmother, speaking nothing but Catawba." Brown is hoping to drop English altogether in five years and doesn't care if only few a handful of people will be able to understand her.
The language is surviving note card by note card because money that used to fund the preservation effort has since been retracted. Three years ago the tribe lost its Indian Health Services and Bureau of Indian Affairs funding for failing to submit audit reports accounting for past money spent. A large part of the funding went to cultural preservation, for purposes like employing a staff linguist. With no money for salaries, the tribe had to lay off linguist Claudia Priest.
Winonah Haire, director of the Catawba Cultural Center, says the lack of resources has been a challenge. In the past when a linguist was employed, language classes were mandatory for Catawba children. Because they can no longer afford teachers, Haire wants to create audiovisual material for students to learn on their own. She has no funding for that either and applies each year to a variety of organizations that give out grants for language preservation. With so many endangered languages vying for funding, these grants are highly competitive, Haire says.
Almost 90 percent of the roughly 200 remaining indigenous American languages are moribund -- without native speakers passing on the language to children from infancy -- and half of the world's 6,000 languages are expected to be extinct in 100 years. All the money in the world might not be enough to save Catawba; the greatest resource in language preservation is commitment to learning.
Rudes spent the majority of his career working with Tuscarora, a tribe who fled the Cape Fear region for New York in the early 18th century after a war with the British and the Catawba. It took the modern day Tuscarora a year before they trusted Rudes enough to let him help document their language and write a dictionary. The Tuscarora are a rare case of a tribe particularly wedded to their language. "To be Tuscarora is to speak Tuscaroran," he says. Revitalization efforts have taken off. The language has competent teachers and is being taught to young Tuscarorans at an early age.
To Rudes, the Catawba aren't as passionate about their language as the Tuscarora. "Looking at the remarks made from some of the last speakers like Chief Sam Blue, he will comment on how no one was interested in learning it. I don't know what thing people do identify with being Catawba, but it doesn't seem like language was one of them."
Jarom Canty says the tribe would be better off adopting Siouan as their language since the Catawba people descended from the Sioux thousands of years ago and because Siouan, also an endangered language, has substantially more speakers and is fully recorded. But Rudes, who has heard this argument before, says there are significantly more differences in the language than similarities. "It would be like saying English is going extinct, instead of reviving it, let's teach everybody Hindu.
"The bottom line is the majority of cases language efforts will fail. It's unusual for the language to be that important to the community that it will override just going with an international language."