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Indigenous Language Learners Enjoy The Process

Karen Richards

The United Nations has declared 2019 “The Year of Indigenous Languages.” Many Oregon tribes are working hard to bring back their native tongues. Though the work is challenging, they try to find ways to keep it light-hearted.  

Reconstructing a native language is not easy. It requires countless hours of research to piece together speech patterns and rules of grammar. On top of that, there's the challenge of learning a new language.


Esther Stutzman, who's deep into a multi-year project to bring back a Willamette Valley Kalapuya dialect, finds it's important to be playful. She says, "Even though it's really daunting, even though sometimes we don't know what we're doing, we just break out into hysterics, because a word might sound funny, or if we break it apart, the meaning might be funny to us now.” 


Stutzman says they've had to invent words for things that didn't exist long ago. They've enjoyed figuring out how to say “potato chips,” for example, or “car:” 

Stutzman: “A car: 'itzhaba,' which means 'self-propelled.”

The project has become a way for her family to bond. Stutzman says her children and grandchildren are central in the effort.

Karen Richards joined KLCC as a volunteer reporter in 2012, and became a freelance reporter at the station in 2015. In addition to news reporting, she’s contributed to several feature series for the station, earning multiple awards for her reporting.
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