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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
August 16, 2004
Volume 40, Number 1

Branch campus/state news

Apache women linguists work to preserve Jicarilla language

By Carolyn Gonzales

Apache women have a tradition founded on strength. While women the world over were still under male dominance, Apache women readily took part in traditional male activities, including hunting, warring and raiding.

Historically, the Apache can point to women who served as shamans – to Tah-des-te, a Chiracahua woman who was a messenger and warrior in Geronimo’s band; to Gouyen, the Mescalero woman who boldly avenged the death of her husband at the hands of the Comanche; and to Lozen, known by warriors as Victorio’s “right hand.”

Wilhelmina Phone, front, and Matilda Martinez volunteer expertise for a Jicarilla Apache dictionary. Photo by Carolyn Gonzales.

Apache women struggled and fought for survival while their progeny work to hold onto vestiges of their heritage. Today’s Apache women inherited that strength. Wilhelmina Phone, Matilda Martinez and Maureen Olson represent a keen interest in preserving the knowledge, culture and tradition living in the spoken word of the Jicarilla Apache, or Abáachi.

Assisting in their work is Melissa Axelrod, UNM associate professor of linguistics.

“I met Mrs. Phone in 1997,” she recalled, “and she told me she wanted to write a dictionary of Jicarilla Apache.” Axelrod, along with colleagues Jordan Lachler and Jule Gómez de García, received a National Science Foundation grant to compile a dictionary of the language. Not the first to attempt to document it, Axelrod is incorporating words from stories collected by Harry Hoijer in the early 1930’s into the database. Currently, the group is verifying meaning, pronunciation and spelling of those words.

Phone has been a diligent advocate for preserving the language. She’s worked with more than one person, on more than one effort, including Dr. Robert Young, professor emeritus in UNM’s Department of Linguistics, who was working on a dictionary for the younger generation to learn the language.

Learning the language was a way of life for her. As a small child, not speaking English made life hard.

In 1935, at age five, she was sent to the sanatorium with tuberculosis, a disease introduced to the area by encroaching settlers. The sanatorium was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, yet no one at the hospital understood Apache, leaving her lonely and isolated.

Phone returned to live with her mother and stepfather upon recovery. “We lived in tents, in the traditional way. We lived up north in the summer and moved south in October,” she said. The Jicarilla raised sheep and cattle and moved them seasonally.

“The Reformed Church had a mission school we attended, but my stepfather pulled me out to work at home,” she said. Although possessing scarcely an elementary education, Phone thirsted to learn.

After marrying Irvin Max Phone in 1956 and adopting two children, Phone wanted to go back to school.

“It took four years of night school, but I got my GED in 1970,” she said proudly.

Desiring to study more, she took her first college course, an anthropology class, at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado. She picked up additional coursework one summer at UNM, another at Ft. Lewis in Durango and two years at San Juan College in Farmington. She has more than 100 credits on her transcript. Both her intuitive sense of her native language coupled with her education makes Phone a valuable asset to the language preservation project.

Axelrod printed up a list of 4,478 words beginning with “na” from the Jicarilla Lexicon Database to review in a recent session with the team members from Dulce. Sisters Phone and Martinez worked with Axelrod and her team – Jule Gómez de Garcia from California State University at San Marcos, and graduate students Susan Buescher, UNM; and Erin Debenport, University of Chicago.

The database contains words used currently by speakers as well as words from old stories, Axelrod said. “Some of the old words don’t have translations or meanings attached to them. We’re looking at them to see if the women know the words and determine whether or not they’re spelled correctly,” she said.

An intensive process, Axelrod writes a word on a white board and the women pronounce it. Part of the preservation process includes capturing the sounds of the language as spoken by native speakers. To that end, the sessions are both audio recorded on compact disc and videotaped.

A word they discussed at length was, “naadaazhee.” The database offered the translation, “They will hunt them.” Phone corrected the translation to “they are hunting.” Axelrod asked questions to get to the root of the difference in person, tense and object.

She explained, “The language is polysynthetic, meaning that most sentences are built around a verb root with many ideas combined into a single word.”

Phone and Martinez also disagreed with a word translated as “trailed.” Phone readily stated that the word more closely meant “tracked.” Phone corrected spellings, noting when and how double vowels were used and pronounced and when “high tones,” or diacritic marks were required to correctly indicate pronunciation and spelling.

Others have come and worked with Phone, taken her knowledge and left, leaving behind nothing for her people. Axelrod’s approach is different. “The idea is to document the language for the people, allowing them to hold onto their heritage and share it with their children,” she said.

The Abáachi Mizaa Ilkee’ Siijai: Dictionary of Jicarilla Apache, will be presented in several formats. One will be strictly alphabetical, as requested by the Apache. The other will be based on the root words, a tool more useful to linguists. Another version will be organized according to semantic field (e.g., kin terms, plants, animals, tools), and there will also be a CD ROM edition of the dictionary.

The Jicarilla speak an Athabaskan language. Phone points out that her tribe can understand the Navajo who also reside in Northern New Mexico better than speakers of other Apache dialects.

Word by word, with the linguists, they are weaving a dictionary to carefully contain the sounds and symbols of a strong people.