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Acoma Pueblo’s Emergency Push To Save Its Language

Marisa Demarco / KUNM
Becky Martin (left) and Ida Madalena contribute words to the Keres Language Recovery Project.

Acoma Pueblo is considered the oldest continually inhabited community in North America. And only about a hundred people or so still speak the Acoma Keres language. Many of those fluent speakers gathered earlier this month in Acoma to record their voices, saving words, concepts and culture. They’re hoping that someday soon, young people will speak the language, too.

Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM
A chart of their progress

It was a cloudy, drizzly day. But it was warm and smelled like good food cooking in the Acoma Learning Center. In six separate rooms there, people—mostly elders—gathered around tables with microphones in the middle. They thought up all the Acoma-Keres words that they could to describe thin people. They went around the table and confirmed them. 

These days, mostly adults and older folks speak this endangered language. The women here are working with a linguist from an organization called The Language Conservancy who wrote down their words phonetically. Until now, Acoma-Keres has been an oral tradition. Becky Martin said recalling words also means recalling history. "I could remember where we went to go pray, where we went to go do things, how my grandparents would describe this vast land or something like that," she said.

Martin said the process of remembering makes her feel more connected to her family members. "It’s a very neat—maybe a spiritual—experiment also, because it does bring back memories, talking about the land here."

In one of the other rooms, Daisy Lewis listed the categories she's been working on. "We did sky. We did birds. We did sun. We did communication."

Credit Anna Lande / KUNM
Folders of categories and concepts for the language preservers to work on

She remembered a song she was taught as a child and sang it in Acoma-Keres, then described it in English. "That’s like a bird, lives in the mountains. They’re picking piñons also, like me."

This is not the first push in recent decades to remember and teach Acoma-Keres. The language was always passed along from person-to-person, and Joe Aragon said that also transmitted feeling. He hopes that can still happen. "So we want everybody to have that feeling for every word or every phrase or every sentence that we have in our language," he said. "That’s how we learned a long time ago. And we need to get that back."

Aragon said this attempt to save the language is different because they’re creating a written dictionary. The world has changed so drastically when it comes to communication, he said, but tradition still matters. It’s urgent that they start to document and teach the language now before too many elders are gone. "How many words have they taken with them? How many ideas have they taken with them?" he said. "So we’re the ones that are left, so we’ve got to try and protect what we have right now before any more are gone."

Credit Anna Lande / KUNM
Faron Tortalita prepares lunch for the speakers

In the common area of the center, Faron Tortalita of the pueblo’s Department of Education finished making tortillas and started chopping green chile for the speakers’ lunch. "That’s the goal, the younger generation becoming fluent speakers, becoming the speakers," he said. "Instead of using English in the home, using Acoma at home."

The room filled up with people who’d been preserving words all morning. Their goal was to hit 10,000, and they had a poster of a thermometer on the wall charting their progress. Tortalita helped everyone get set up with plates of food then sat for a minute in the hallway. "Nowadays, it has to be written," he said. "Our children are more visual. It has to be done. That’s the only way that our language will be preserved."

He lives on the pueblo and is one of the people pushing for this emergency word collection effort. Once there’s a dictionary, he said it’ll be used in homes and schools to revitalize the Acoma language.

"If they say, 'I’m Acoma,' well you know what? You should speak Acoma," he said. "For me, it’s our way of life. You know, language is who we are as people."

And that’s true across cultures, he said: Language is identity. 

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.