Eastern Shoshone Records Over 4,000 Words | Wyoming News
Sofia Jeremias WyoFile.com
For the past two weeks, Robyn Rofkar has woken up in the cold darkness of 3 a.m., rising early to start simmering beans or baking blueberry muffins, making sure the 20 Shoshone speakers gathered in the Church of Latter-day Saints at Fort Washakie are cared for.
Elders arrive at 9 a.m. each day and gather in small groups to remember and record words through a process called “rapid word collecting.”
A linguist from the Language Conservancy, with whom the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center has partnered to carry out the project, names one category, something like “sky.” Shoshone speakers then list words that relate: from the stars to the sun and the colors that make up the firmament.
The group has recorded over 4,000 words, which will eventually be turned into an online dictionary. It’s one more step to ensure the Eastern Shoshone people have a way to remember and learn their own language, a project in which Rofkar, who is a member of the tribe, and the Cultural Center Eastern Shoshone have been engaged for years.
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The oldest person to attend daily gatherings of Shoshone speakers was 98. Another woman celebrated her 90th birthday during the project. Everyone fluent in Shoshone is usually at least 60 years old, Rofkar said, and there are likely fewer than 200 in all.
“Years ago, these same elders were forbidden to speak their own language,” Rofkar said.
That’s because generations of young Native Americans were punished for speaking their language, said Wil Meya, president of the Language Conservancy.
“The fundamental problem is that languages, especially in the United States, are all in danger,” Meya said. “To a large extent this endangerment of the language was the result of government policies that prohibited the use of the language and things like the boarding school system that had existed for over a hundred years.”
In 1954, most members of the tribe stopped passing their language on to the next generation, he said, and those born after that year mainly spoke English.
Rofkar’s family didn’t speak Shoshone when she was growing up, but she picked up some words from classes at Central Wyoming College. During her 28 years working at Fort Washakie School, she has helped with programs related to the Shoshone language. After retiring, Rofkar took a job as an administrative assistant at the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center, where she began applying for grants to revitalize the Shoshone language in her community.
New funding became available through the American Rescue Plan Act, and the Cultural Center was able to secure a grant that supported the rapid word-gathering process. Although the Cultural Center already has a dictionary of around 8,000 words, it does not include pronunciations and spelling is not standardized, according to Rofkar. Due to certain vocalization characteristics, the Shoshone “p” is more of a “b” sound, for example. Writing Shoshone words without detailed pronunciation instructions poses a challenge, she explained.
Language has the power to shape our worlds. Shoshone, Rofkar noted, is “so descriptive. A lot of seniors are always cracking jokes, teasing, and there are these fun little ways to put the words together. It’s very pleasant to hear.
The creation of a dictionary accompanied by recorded pronunciations can be a basis for the Eastern Shoshone. “The dictionary really becomes a great building block for many other materials that might be needed,” said Meya of the Language Conservancy. “We kind of act as a bridge between generations, being able to work with elders and help bring the language to the surface in a way that is then accessible to younger learners.”
Rofkar potentially wants to create a textbook or online material to help Eastern Shoshone people learn their language. “We need more Shoshone language teachers who are fluent, we really need to pass that on before it gets lost,” she said.
The center is applying for another grant to set up intensive learning programs, she said. The idea behind this initiative is that one or two fluent alumni would get together with a group of learners, and within 18 months the learners would become fluent and able to teach the language to others.
Rofkar, meanwhile, is also learning Shoshone herself. “I’m working on it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent.
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