Parker Pioneer, April 2, 2008
Joan M. Travis
In January, Johnny Hill Jr., saw snow for the first time in Park City, Utah. He marveled about that and also how he was invited to the Sundance Film Festival. A member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, he speaks Chemehuevi, a language which is fading; there are only a handful of fluent speakers.
He attended the premiere of The Linguists, a documentary by Ironbound Films for PBS, with his wife Roberta. Hill appears in the film, interviewed by linguists David Garrison and Greg Anderson.
Garrison and Anderson traveled throughout the world, bringing attention of languages which are nearly extinct. It is estimated more 7,000 languages are spoken in the world and a language is lost every two weeks.
They traveled to Siberia to find speakers of the Chulym language. Their driver denied he spoke the language but finally relented. During the reign of the Soviets, language and culture were suppressed.
The linguists climbed the Andes in Bolivia to find speakers of the Kallawaya language. It is estimated there are only 100 speakers of the language left.
And they interviewed Hill, who spoke of his childhood and learning the Chemehuevi language from his grandmother. He was the only person from the U.S. interviewed in the documentary.
Hill was raised by raised by his grandmother, the late Mary S. Hill. She raised him from infancy, and at the time she was in her 70's. She would walk him to school if he missed the bus, a trek of five miles.
She passed away at age 102; when Hill was 21.
"When she passed on, I thought I had lost everything and was very hurt. You would have to experience this to understand what I'm talking about; and it was in my later years when I realized that I still had something my grandmother had given me: the Chemehuevi language," Hill stated.
"I still speak (Chemehuevi) but not as good as I used to when I was very young. You see, when there is no one to talk to, it slowly vanishes and the next thing you know it's gone," he added.
Three or four years ago, Hill made his own video, talking about his childhood in English and Chemehuevi. He went to a workshop on Indian languages at the University of Arizona. He gave the video to Susan Penfield Ph.D, who is in the Department of English at U of A and is part of the American Indian Language & Development Institute.
Penfield praised Hill for sharing his language.
"Johnny is doing amazing work and is now a world-renowned figure in the study and advocacy of endangered languages," Penfield told the Pioneer by e-mail. "Most often, the last place to realize how damaging the loss of a language can be is in the heritage community where the loss of the language should matter the most."
"I have been hearing for many years about Johnny's ability to speak Chemehuevi (I have worked for the CRIT tribes, mostly with Mohave speakers, since 1969) so, when designing a collaboration between the CRIT tribal library and the University of Arizona (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants through tribal libraries--funding was received in 2003), we opted to train both Chemehuevi and Mohave members at CRIT in computer technology that would support work on language revitalization," Penfield elaborated.
"We chose a team of six and Johnny agreed to be part of this project. My favorite memory is when I gave Johnny his brand new Dell laptop, a gift of this project, knowing that this was his first real experience with a computer. He said, 'If I can drive heavy equipment for the BIA, I'll figure this out!' And, boy, did he!" she stated.
Penfield said, "He now helps with advanced recording techniques on his computer and stays in touch by e-mail with a lot of us. What is important about Johnny is his understanding that it is the everyday use of Chemehuevi that needs to be recorded and saved. Others in the community are working in their own way to save traditional stories, and this is also important. But, in the history of recorded language for almost all Native American communities, it is the knowledge of everyday language use that is missing."
Johnny's work on our most recent project (funded by the National Science Foundation) built on the Gates project and has been most focused on helping to add sound files to compiled vocabulary lists to make a 'talking' dictionary. This is being constructed on a database and is now up to 3,000 words. Johnny has worked tirelessly to help with this on his time away from his regular job. He is extremely fluent in the language and one of the very few speakers left of Chemehuevi," she said.
"The world loses a language every two weeks; over 90 percent of the world's languages will be lost in the next century (this is 80 percent greater than the losses we all worry about for animal species, etc). The worst part is that virtually all of these languages have not been recorded and are not languages supported by literacy. Therefore, we do not even really know what is being lost in terms of knowledge or information about how human beings process their thinking about the world (only language can tell us that). In the United States, virtually all Indigenous languages are seriously endangered -- even Navajo -- since children are no longer learning them," Penfield said.
By his participation in the film, Johnny Hill has done more to raise awareness of this problem than almost any other single tribal member. Through our NSF project, I was introduced to the makers of the Ironbound Film and asked if they would like to meet Johnny -- so they did. Johnny's work was part of a previous film which they made titled, 'The Last Speakers' -- and then it was retained and incorporated into "The Linguists." The film makers told me that everywhere they showed their first cuts of the film, people were more moved by Johnny's comments than any others," she added.
Penfield stated, "The goal of the film is to really raise awareness about the extreme effects of language loss. What many people do not realize is that the loss of a language leads to the loss of many other things -- including the loss of land (this is a pattern throughout the world, not just in the U.S.) Both Mohave and Chemehuevi at CRIT are highly endangered and the tribal members who are working to revitalize both of these should be highly complemented."
Hill said nearly 8,000 documentaries were submitted to the Sundance organization and the top 20 were selected.
"I consider Greg Anderson and David Garrison my brothers," Hill added, recalling when they came to Parker to interview him.
The Hills spent a week in the cold climate, and during their two days off, they managed to go to Salt Lake City and visit relatives in northern Nevada.
Hill said he was given a standing ovation after the film's producers introduced him to the audience following the screening.
"I had a blast. There are theaters up and down the streets, just packed with people. Since we didn't go out at night, we didn't see any celebrities, except for Colin Farrell. Photographers were all over him, he didn't seem to mind. It was crazy," Hill said with a laugh.
He has offered to teach people the language but just gets 'no-shows.'
"It's up to the people, they're missing out on their heritage," he said.
Hill said, "If you speak a language, please try to pass it on. And if you don't speak and you want to learn, please don't be afraid to ask, no matter what language it may be. This is why I was featured in the film. I was very honored when I was asked to attend the festival."
Hill said the documentary will be screened in Tucson sometime this month. He added when The Linguists are scheduled for PBS, he will notify the community.