The Rain Forest Atlas - page 3
Page 3: First Nations of the Coastal Temperate Rain Forest
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First Nations of the Coastal Temperate Rain Forest
When European explorers and fur traders first visited the coast, they encountered one of the highest densities of First Nations settlements found anywhere on the North American continent. Several hundred thousand First Nations people knew the forested valleys and shores as home, occupying thousands of villages and seasonal camps. More than sixty distinct languages were spoken by peoples living between the Kodiak Archipelago of Alaska and San Francisco Bay. This linguistic diversity, far greater than that of the continental interior, surely reflects the ecological complexity of the sustaining coastal lands and waters. Only in a few other places in the world did comparably advanced societies arise on a foundation of natural abundance, rather than farming or herding.
The geography of languages only begins to explore the cultural diversity, the reciprocal accommodation of people and landscape, that blossomed along this coastline. First Nations people were organized far less into discrete "tribes" than into a network of local and village groups for which few contemporary counterparts exist. Some groups based their economic and spiritual lives on pursuit and capture of marine mammals, others on the gathered bounty of tidelands and estuaries, still others on salmon or the mammals of upland forests. Many participated in trading networks extending throughout and beyond the region. Many individuals were multilingual, thanks to parentage, marriage, or economic necessity.
Languages, though not necessarily synonymous with distinct cultures, express a bond between people and place that offers perhaps the closest human counterpart to the adaptive "fit" of genetically distinct salmon stocks to their ancestral coastal streams. Oral traditions, particularly the names and stories unique to a local group, also articulate a highly intimate, and evanescent, understanding of place: "If much of a people's knowledge about the natural world is encoded in their indigenous language, the same knowledge cannot easily be imparted in another foreign language which has not developed a specific vocabulary to describe local conditions, biota, and land management practices" (Nabhan and St Antoine 1993).
As Franz Boas and other early ethnographers who worked among the people of the Northwest Coast found, First Nations languages arose from a worldview almost unimaginable to the European mind. The Kwak'w'ala place names Boas recorded near the northern end of Vancouver Island (Boas 1934, cited by Stafford 1986) expressed events more than features; to the speakers of Kwak'w'ala, like many of the coastal First Nations, places became memorable and nameable through the experiences that occurred in them. Each such name was pregnant with a story, one told to amuse, to instruct, to caution, or to reassure. Through the stories passed among villages and across generations arose a kind of local knowledge that has been nearly lost from the bioregion.
There is no denying the extent of indigenous cultural erosion that European settlement, the ensuing pressures for cultural assimilation, and instances of outright genocide, caused. Forty-four of 68 language groups believed to have been spoken at the time of European exploration are today extinct or spoken by fewer than ten individuals. The losses have been heaviest in the southern part of the coastal temperate rain forest region: twenty-five of 47 languages spoken in northern California, Oregon, and Washington are extinct, while only one of the 21 languages spoken in coastal British Columbia and southeastern Alaska is extinct (though five are spoken by fewer than ten people). The pattern of language extinction follows a path from south to north reflecting the time and intensity of European settlement. Overall, the numbers of fluent speakers of Native languages in the region have declined by more than 99 percent, and all of the languages along the Northwest Coast are in essence endangered since all or nearly all of their surviving speakers are elderly.
After a century and a half of European settlement and industrial resource exploitation, First Nations populations are a fraction of their former size, native forests are smaller, and the more recent, non-Native immigrants who live in and visit the coastal zone number in the millions. But, in Tennyson's words, "though much has been taken, much abides." With remarkable tenacity, many First Nations have sustained the integrity of their traditions in the face of overwhelming pressure. Efforts to revive Native languages on the verge of disappearance, and to revitalize the cultural and territorial identity they express, have taken root up and down the coast. A promising path to restoration begins with stories told in the old words, in the old ways and leads back to the places that spawned them.
Assessing the Status of Language Groups
Determining the status of Native language groups is fraught with difficulties of many kinds. The first is that setting boundaries around language "groups," individual languages, and dialects is inevitably an arbitrary effort. Wayne Suttles, who recently mapped the language groups of the Northwest Coast, took pains to point out the different meanings and implications of the terms "languages, " "related languages," "language families," and the hypothetical "language phyla." The true diversity of languages within a region is not fully captured by any particular method of distinguishing them.
The contemporary status of Native languages is bound up in the history of particular villages and tribes — their territorial status, the nature of recognition granted them by the governments of Canada or the United States, and the various tribal amalgamations that have taken place since the coast was settled by people of European descent. It is by no means surprising that this history and its consequences should have rendered the interpretation of language status considerably more difficult.
|First Nations Language Groups: Historical and Current Status|
|SE AK2||3||~15,000||Spoken by <10: 1
Spoken by >100: 2
Spoken by <10: 4
Spoken by 10-100: 7
Spoken by >100: 5
Status unknown: 1
Spoken by <10: 7
Spoken by 10-100: 1
Spoken by >100: 1
Spoken by <10: 1
Status unknown: 3
Spoken by <10: 5
Spoken by 10–100: 4
Spoken by <10: 18
Spoken by 10-100: 12
Spoken by >100: 8
Status unknown: 4
|1 Estimated number of speakers of listed languages at time of European exploration af the Northwest Coast.
2 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian are spoken in both Alaska and Canada; in this table Haida and Tsimshian are grouped with the B.C. languages because the majority of their speakers reside in Canada.
Note: The map above does not show all of the languages represented in this table.
Sources: Estimates based on Sturtvant (1990), Hinton and Montijo (1993), Krauss (1994), Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer (1992), and personal communications.
The language groups represented in this map are those identified and mapped by anthropologists Wayne Suttles (1985) and Michael Krauss (1982). In some cases the groups shown are themselves amalgamations of several adjacent languages. The estimates of historical populations of native speakers summarized in Table I (roughly indicating populations at the time of European exploration and first contact) are from various volumes of Handbook of North American Indians (Sturtevant 1990).
The assignment of language groups to categories of current status in this table (Extinct, Spoken by <10, etc.) was based on estimates for the number of fluent speakers of each language group in 1994 by Professors Jay Powell of the University of British Columbia and Michael Krauss of the Alaska Native Language Center of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (for groups north of California) and by Professors Leanne Hinton and Yolanda Montijo of the University of California, Berkeley (for groups in California). In the few cases where two authorities differed on the status of a particular language group, the authors of this report chose the more precise assessment, or erred on the side of over-, rather than underestimating the number of speakers. We are, of course, responsible for any errors of assignment that resulted.
Estimating the total number of language speakers alone can be misleading. A better way to approach this type of analysis is to compare the number of speakers to the total population, and more importantly, to categorize the number of speakers by age group. Michael Krauss has collected much of this information for the northern portion of the rain forest region, and any future analyses should incorporate this data and methodology.
The status of language groups is not static. Some still spoken in 1994 may now be extinct, and some then considered extinct, or nearly so are being "reawakened" (to use the term favored by Native language advocate Vi Hilbert of the Upper Skagit Tribe in Washington state) through painstaking tribal efforts. But the overall pattern of loss has not yet been reversed, and as Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation have written (1992), "if a Native American language dies, there is no place on earth one can travel to learn it."