Laguna Community Foundation Makes a Lasting Impact to Revitalize Threatened Laguna Keres Language

Published June 22, 2016

LAGUNA PUEBLO — Supported by private and public donors including contributions from within the Pueblo of Laguna, the Laguna Community Foundation (LCF) serves as the nonprofit (501c3) “bucket” to receive and redistribute contributed resources to support community engagement programs, including the preservation and revitalization of the Laguna Keres Language.

Chris Luther, Laguna Pueblo – Laguna Keres Language Teacher

Chris Luther, Laguna Pueblo – Laguna Keres Language Teacher

Despite well-intentioned efforts to revitalize the use of the Laguna Keres language over the past thirty years, the native language of the Laguna people is considered to be threatened with a risk of becoming endangered.  Since 2012, LCF’s comprehensive four-year Community Engagement Project has dedicated grant funds toward a language policy to protect and revitalize the Laguna Keres language.

“This grant was about building energy and momentum. It has provided funding for teacher training, data collection in which 500 surveys were collected, community dinners, capacity building, and in-depth digital story-telling by our youth,” explains Gilbert Sanchez, executive director, Laguna Community Foundation. “The best part is dozens of Pueblo members who know the language, have come forward to impart their knowledge,” adds Sanchez.

Language revitalization efforts began with the engagement of tribal members, data collection, and research, in which it was discovered that out of the 500 surveyed, 25 percent self-identified fluency in the Keres language.  Networking and partnerships with schools, business and community groups commenced the second year.  Mayordomos and religious leaders were integrated into the revitalization initiatives during the third year.  Ultimately, in this current fourth year of the Community Engagement Project continued efforts are being made towards the development of the Laguna Language Policy, training continues and there has been a surge in passion for using the language in everyday situations, especially among the Laguna Pueblo youth.

“I am humbled at all the progress that is being made.  It is really exciting. The movement has grown in an upward curve.  Young people are wanting it.  Ten years ago there was very little interest.  What we’re seeing today is a passion for language that is beyond a project for school.  It is a personal passion to keep their language alive forever.  There is a very personal commitment and passion. We have a lot of work ahead”, Inée Y. Slaughter, Executive Director, Indigenous Language Institute.

According to the Language Vitality statistics, out of 7,000 people in the Laguna community, 2,000 are speakers and of those the vast majority are over 40 years of age.

“Language should flow like water; into every place it is meant to connect.  It needs to connect deeply with community members in language activities that are relevant to life.  We all have to be speaking it.  Not as a subject to be taught, but simply to be used every day in every situation,” adds Slaughter.

Today, there is a great need to educate the youth of the Pueblo and share with them the core values of the Laguna community.  The Laguna Keres language holds the deep meaning and purpose and is used in all religious ceremonies.  For this reason and more, it has been critical to identify unified ways to teach language to the children and youth, as well as to all of our community members.

“We are trying to learn, we really are.  For us to survive, there’s not a lot of fluent speakers around.  We are in a state of emergency.  The home is everywhere, and we need to be hearing it at home and speaking it at home, in this community”, explains Kyle Swimmer, youth member of Laguna Pueblo.

Members of the community have been taking classes and renewing their lost language skills, with the help of those who are fluent, trained teachers and the youngest members of the pueblo, who are the most adept at learning their native language.

“It’s been more challenging for me.  There is a dictionary for us to use, and it has phonetic markings that don’t really translate to Keres.  They send us home with words and phrases to practice, and I just come back with more questions”, explains Tribal member Mildred Garcia, who has been taking language classes for 6 months.

Chris Luther, long-time teacher of Keres Language has been looking for new methods for students, and asks the question, “What if we lose our language?  What will we dance to?”  “Sometimes I think back, and I am glad to be born at a time when people were still using our language.  The key to learning it is to repeat it and keep repeating it and repeating it, and you’ll learn simple words, everyday words.  We teach that.  But we need to encourage this at home.  The little ones are really good at picking it up,” explains Luther.

The Laguna Keres language is the only language spoken in the kiva during religious ceremonies and it is vital to the survival of the traditions and customs of the Laguna people. With the generous grant funding by Laguna Community Foundation, the Laguna Keres Language will not only survive but thrive for generations.


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