A Voice from the Past
With little more than a laptop computer and a microphone, Heritage alumnus Greg Sutterlict is preserving an endangered language.
Sutterlict, who graduated with a degree in American Cultural Studies in 2004, is the founder of the nonprofit organization Xwayamamí Ishích (Eagle’s Nest). The organization is dedicated to preserving the cultural traditions of the Yakama people as a means for helping children and families flourish. As Xwayamamí Ishích has grown and evolved over the last couple of years, its primary focus has become language revitalization.
“Language and culture can’t be separated,” said Sutterlict. “In order to understand the culture, you have to know the language.”
Through Xwayamamí Ishích, Sutterlict creates learning materials such as videos, CDs, DVDs, posters and pamphlets to help people learn (Sahaptin), the traditional language of Native Americans living along the Columbia River Basin, including the Yakamas.
“When I first started out trying to learn the language, I didn’t know where to go. There were no materials,” said Sutterlict. “It’s important to me that the materials I develop are easily accessible and easy to understand, so that any person who has questions can get the help they need.”
Each week, Sutterlict posts a video or written tutorial to the Xwayamamí Ishích Facebook page and YouTube channel. The short videos take the viewer through a simple phrase, breaking down the parts of the word and helping the viewer to practice the sounds and inflection. Sutterlict often uses his own children or community members in the cleverly developed videos to highlight the words or phrases he is teaching.
Sutterlict’s work is intentionally straightforward and simple so anyone can use the materials. “My hope is that anyone who wants to learn their native language now has access to the materials they need,” he said. “Particularly,” he adds, “the children. “Children on the reservation don’t go to tribal school until middle school,” Sutterlict said. “I want children as early as preschool to begin learning language and cultural practices.”
Sutterlict’s passion for his culture and its preservation is entwined in his roots. Growing up on the Yakama Reservation, he was enamored with the stories and lessons taught by the elders in his community. Being active in his community, attending pow wows and participating in a long-distance running group called the Native American Spiritual Running Group instilled in him an abiding dedication to his tribe’s history and culture.
Sutterlict’s interest led him to sign up for a single language and culture class taught at Heritage by tribal elder Professor Virginia Beavert. At that time he wasn’t looking for a college degree, just the ability to teach his own young children more about their culture. That single class ignited a passion. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Heritage and a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Washington. Today, he is a dissertation away from a doctoral degree in linguistics from the University of Oregon.
Last year Sutterlict returned to Heritage University as an adjunct faculty member, teaching language and
linguistics, inspiring the next generation of students. In addition, he works for Yakama Head Start, an early childhood education program, and dreams of one day starting an immersion charter school.
“Greg is an invaluable resource to our Heritage community,” said Dr. Winona Wynn, associate chair of humanities and English and a member of the Xwayamamí Ishích board of directors. “His dedication to language revitalization inspires us all to make deeper connections to our own cultural ties.”