Preserving Nambe dialect focus of language project
Outside the Box > > Susan Buescher
By Carolyn Gonzales
|Susan Buescher recently received the UNM Sigma Xi Superior Undergraduate Student Award. She begins grad school in the fall.
Imagine being a 70-year-old native trying to remember the name of a plant your grandmother found roadside and brewed for you when you were a feverish child.
Maybe you know the name of it in English; perhaps even in Spanish, but its name in the Nambé language escapes you.
Perhaps you ask a brother or cousin, but since only 38 people besides you speak the language, if no one remembers, the word is lost. Lost too is the meaning behind the plant’s name and maybe why it was important to your people. You grieve the word and the many others no longer uttered.
Only 39 of Nambé Pueblo’s people still speak their ancestors’ Tewa dialect. Susan Buescher understands what it means to be one of 39 – that’s the number in her 1999 graduating class at Red Lodge High School in Montana.
A spring UNM graduate, Buescher and a linguists team, including UNM Professor Melissa Axelrod and graduate student Evan Ashworth, along with researchers from the University of Chicago, are actively engaged in preserving and revitalizing Nambé’s language.
Besides compiling an online dictionary, the linguists, with community members Cora McKenna, Evelyn Hatch and Brenda McKenna, are recording stories and tales they and other speakers recollect.
“The recordings will be used to help teach the Tewa dialect to younger people in Nambé,” Buescher said. Once recorded, the tales will be transcribed into books.
Tewa is in the Kiowa-Tanoan language family with dialects spoken in Pojoaque, Tesuque, San Juan, San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblos.
Esther Martinez, San Juan Pueblo, recently attended a colloquium at UNM where the dictionary and language preservation were discussed. She worked with linguist Randall Speirs in the 1960s and 70s to develop a dictionary for her pueblo. Speirs also worked with Nambé. Martinez is engaged in the current Nambé project, too, giving permission for her Dictionary of San Juan to be used as the base for the Nambé Dictionary.
“Without the language, we lose Nambé’s understanding of the world. The people lose their relationship with grandparents and other ancestors. They become separated from that which roots them in place.
- Susan Bueshcer
“The last time any in-depth research was conducted in Nambé was in the 1970’s,” Buescher said.
The dictionary is a tool to help guide the pueblo in its own language preservation efforts. Axelrod, Buescher’s mentor and associate professor of linguistics, is working on a similar project for the Jicarilla Apache Nation.
So far, the online dictionary features mostly nouns and adjectives. “We are devising a format for displaying verbs with their various prefixes and suffixes. We will use them in context so they are easy to understand,” Buescher said.
Once completed, the dictionary will be published and distributed in the community.
The process also involves simplifying an alphabet Speirs created. “His diacritics made the language hard to read because sometimes there are several different marks on one vowel,” Buescher said.
The language started losing vitality with the influence of English on children when they went to school. Spanish was also widely spoken regionally. As is the case with all Native American languages in the U.S., Tewa speakers have gradually shifted to English, Buescher said.
“Without the language, we lose Nambé’s understanding of the world. The people lose their relationship with grandparents and other ancestors. They become separated from that which roots them in place,” Buescher said.
Buescher recently received the UNM Sigma Xi Superior Undergraduate Student Award. “Sigma Xi is a scientific research society made of up 90,000 scientists and engineers, so it is pretty interesting that they are recognizing a student in linguistics,” said Sherman Wilcox, Department of Linguistics chair.
Buescher has been accepted as a master’s candidate in the department. She recently attended the Workshop on American Indigenous Languages conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she, Ashworth and master’s student Brittany Kubacki presented on the grammar of tense in the Navajo language. The paper will be published as part of the conference proceedings.
Buescher plans to go on to earn a doctorate. Her long-term goals will take her further away from her Montana roots. “I would love to go to Africa to support and encourage revitalization efforts among native peoples,” she said.