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LCC plans to offer Native language.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

This fall, Lane Community College could become the first community college in the state to offer a Native American language course, thanks to years of work by faculty and students and help from one impatient donor.

The new course will be the first beneficiary of a $1 million anonymous gift made to the college last year. Interest income from the donation will be used to invite a Native American scholar to spend a year at LCC laying the foundation for the new language program, which will be offered alongside the college's French and Spanish classes.

The gift allows Lane to establish an endowed chair, something that's common at four-year universities but rare at community colleges. But rather than use the endowment for a single discipline, as universities traditionally do, LCC will rotate it each year among different divisions with the Native language program going first.

"When I was thinking about where in the institution this chair could really make a difference, I thought of this program," said LCC President Mary Spilde, who then proposed the idea to the group of faculty and students who have spent years working to create a Native language program. "They were very excited about the idea and really felt it would give the Native language program the best possible start. To have somebody who's just going to be focused on this I think is really going to make all the difference."

The donor originally set up the gift as a charitable remainder trust, which means the college wouldn't begin receiving the income from the donation until the donor died. But Spilde said the donor decided she wanted LCC to start getting the benefit right away and converted it into an outright gift.

The college has not yet decided which Native language it will offer, in part because that will depend on the background of the person it ultimately hires. But Spilde said it will be a language spoken by a Northwest tribe and said they hope to choose a scholar by this summer.

Ultimately, the college hopes to offer a program rigorous enough that students who pass the Native language class will be able to transfer the credits to a four-year university and have them count toward the language requirement for a bachelor's degree. That won't happen right away, however.

First, the college will concentrate on building the program.

Lane already is known for its native student programs, including a course that takes a broad look at Native language and culture, and the LCC board recently approved the Native language sequence.

Although perhaps only six of the 25 Native languages that existed in Oregon before European arrival are still spoken, researchers and linguists say learning one still has value, much as people still learn Latin or ancient Greek. People learn those languages not so much to communicate but to read the rich history and mythologies as written by their original speakers as well as to better understand their culture and how they saw the world.

"It's much the same thing with many of the languages of Oregon," said University of Oregon linguistics professor Scott Delancey, who studies Northwest Indian languages. "If you learn Nez Perce or Klamath or any of a number of languages, this gives you access to a large body of traditional lore and literature and mythology. And the truth is, you really don't get a lot of the story if you just read the English translation."

Twila Souers, a Lakota tribal member who lives in Eugene, said the program is important for another reason. Many Native languages already have died out and the few remaining are spoken only by a few people, usually elders, so teaching them in college is seen not only as a way to preserve dying languages but also to share the culture they reflect.

"I don't have any qualms at all about other people learning the language because the languages will die out if people don't take the time to learn them," she said. "Language embodies culture, and if you can maintain the language you can maintain a lot of the understanding you might not be able to translate or pull out from English."

Susan Carkin, chair of the literature and languages division at LCC, said the program fits in well with the college's mission and its recent emphasis on diversity. And Jerry Hall, a biology instructor who has been part of the effort to start a Native language program since its start in 2000, said it also will attract the growing number of people interested in Native culture.

"It will bring people here; it will have a ripple effect," he said. "There just seems to be a very broad and strong interest in American Indian languages."

Carkin said the language program will help students understand that Oregon's history didn't begin with the arrival of Europeans.

"I think we're recognizing that our history hasn't just been post-Columbus history, and the same thing with our language traditions," she said. "I think we've broadened our understanding of where languages are useful and usable, and I think we've also broadened our respect for a range of languages that have value in people's lives."
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; A gift made to the college will help fund the initial course in a new program
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 30, 2005
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