PUEBLO OF ACOMA, N.M. (AP) — With fewer than 100 speakers remaining, the Acoma Keres language is on the verge of extinction. Few young people under the age of 40 have learned the language. If no action is taken, the Native American Pueblo of Acoma stands to lose a fundamental part of its heritage, an Acoma educator said. Acoma's Department of Education and the Language Conservancy have created an Acoma Language Recovery Plan to restore the Keres language and preserve the pueblo's legacy for future generations. They wrapped up the first phase of the project mid-March.


"This initial phase is called a Rapid Language Acquisition Process," said Stanley Holder, executive director of the Acoma Department of Education. "What they're doing is they're assembling a 10,000-word Acoma Keres dictionary. From that they will be developing electronic media to support language revitalization by making that available for tribal members to learn. They will also be developing books and CDs and other products to support language revitalization."

The Language Conservancy, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana, has been assisting tribes with language preservation and revitalization for more than 20 years.

"They are going to work with us to develop curriculum from early childhood to eighth grade," Holder said.

ENSURING SURVIVAL

The pueblo, located roughly 60 miles west of Albuquerque, will assume operation of the Sky City Community School in 2018 from the Bureau of Indian Education. They plan to have teachers who are certified to teach in the state of New Mexico and who have tribal certification to teach the Keres language. To set the stage, Holder said they have applied for a consolidated tribal assistance grant to implement an after-school program that will provide 30 minutes of academic enhancement followed by an hour of cultural immersion.

"The goal is that when these students graduate eighth grade, they will be conversationally fluent in Keres," Holder said.

Quoting Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley, Holder said: "'Language is the key to open the door to the culture, to the tradition, and to the spirituality.' "But there is concern because the number of fluent speakers shrinks every year. I come from a tribe where last November, that window closed for us. Our last fluent speaker died," said Holder, a Wichita Indian from Oklahoma.

For Acoma, it's not too late.

DICTIONARY PROJECT

Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Language Conservancy, said they had more than 30 fluent speakers coming daily, and systematically going through a list of more than 1,700 topic areas, called semantic domains, which covered everything from A to Z.

The speakers were divided into six groups which aver aged about 176 words each, or more than 1,000 words a day. A chart on a wall of the cafeteria documented their daily progress. As of Wednesday they had 7,000 words and were hoping to get to 9,000 by Friday.

"This is essentially the largest dictionary project of its kind ever in New Mexico for this scale - and possibly one of the largest, fastest dictionary projects in the U.S. with this particular method, which is called rapid word collection," Meya said.

"It's a great way to build a dictionary quickly, especially in the context of a language like Acoma, where we don't have 20 years to spend, slowly and methodically working on a dictionary. The average age of the speakers is relatively old — over 65," he said. "It's a very short window of time to try to capture all the words that are in the language."

The response from elders was enthusiastic, he said. Some participants were remembering words they had not used in years.

"Ourselves as the linguists, we're mostly in the scribe area, where we're transcribing the language that we hear," he said. "We're also doing some audio and video recording as well to make sure there's some redundancy to the work that we do."

Anita Warfel, record keeper with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, typed in each Keres word and its English equivalent from the linguists' lists, documenting how many words were collected from each group as well as other data.

"It's a language that is good for people to study because it has various structures and various sounds that we don't have," she said.

UNIVERSE OF LANGUAGE

Linguist Willem de Reuse and the Acoma participants in Group 2 sat at a table huddled around a microphone, where they were discussing the word "crease."

"Like a crease or a fold in the pants," Elvis Howeya said, reading from the topic list. "It's a really sharp edge when you put it on pants. What words refer to a fold in something? Fold, crease, angle, wrinkle, flap, dog-ear, tuck. What words describe something that has many folds crumpled up and pleated?"

The speakers gave de Reuse the Keres words and sounded them out as he meticulously wrote them down.

"We have a preliminary spelling system that we're using to write the language down in the different groups. We all use pretty much the same system, a phonetic writing system that is not officially adopted by the tribe yet, but is quite precise as far as all the different qualities of sounds are concerned," de Reuse said. "Later on, we will look through all these words again and figure out what spelling system the tribeprefers. It might be less detailed or more detailed, depending on what the tribe decides and wants their kids to learn."

Vina Leno said she and others grew up hearing and speaking the language, so that's how they became fluent in Keres. "My grandchildren can understand it, like simple commands or simple conversations, but their speaking is not there yet," she said.

Pauline Villegas and Lois Torivio became interested in the dictionary project because they want to make sure their children and grandchildren learn the language.

"It's learnable because when I married my wife, she couldn't speak Keres and now she's very fluent," Howeya said. "She can sit and talk with me fluently, and she can actually pray fluently in our language. She doesn't need help anymore. So it's learnable just by talking to individuals. It's just the kids have a disadvantage because when they're in school, what do they hear most? English. So they forget what they learned at home once they get into a school system."

Ida Madalena, 81, a former teacher who was with another group of elders, said her children do not speak Keres fluently.

"My husband was from another tribe so we talked English all the time and that's how my kids grew up, talking English. But now they're trying to start talking Acoma," she said.

Faron Tortalita, coordinator of the project for the Acoma Department of Education, talked about its genesis as he stirred the beginnings of blue corn mush for the elders' lunch.

"Mr. (Stanley) Holder was out on travel at the National Indian Education conference and he was able to meet up with The Conservancy and brought back some material that they had there at the conference. From there it just started rolling. We've been at this since the latter part of 2016," he said.

The dictionary is the first stepping stone in what is hoped will be a five or six year process.

"We're going to be developing things like textbooks, picture books, whole cartoon series, apps and games," Meya said.

The dictionary should be available at Google Play and the Apple Store by the end of 2017, with an app available in 2018.