There are almost 7000 languages in the world, but every two weeks one goes silent.
People who speak the world’s dominant languages—English, Spanish, Chinese—believe that a common language binds us and makes us one unified people. But such unification is also a loss of culture.
A language that is embedded into song, behavior and belief keeps a community intact. Language is an intimate moral compass, a belonging.
These photographs show Tuvans from the central Russian steppes, the Seri people who live on the shore of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, and the Aka people who live in remote northeast India.
There are also the lone survivors of Native American tribes who are struggling to keep not only their words, but their very identity. Johnny Hill Jr. is Chemehuevi, from Arizona. He is one of only two remaining fluent native speakers.
“I live alone and talk to myself to remember. Not out loud but quietly in my own heart,” he says. “It’s difficult to remember the words with no one to speak to. It’s like a bird losing feathers. You see one float by and there it goes—another word gone.
“I speak it inside my heart”
Johnny Hill, Jr. of Parker, Arizona, is one of the last speakers of Chemehuevi, an endangered Native American language. He says, “It’s like a bird losing feathers. You see one float by, and there it goes—another word gone.”
“My mother’s mother has been here before.”
Melodie George-Moore was discouraged from speaking her tribal language while growing up. “Why learn Hupa? Everyone who speaks it is dead.” But she sensed her destiny was tied to learning the Hupa language, and so she has learned it well enough to fulfill her role as a medicine woman. Moore believes that answers to the troubles faced by her tribe may be found in the stories of her ancestors.
“The white language doesn’t go deep enough.”
Charlie “Red Hawk” Thom is a medicine man and ceremonial leader. He says that English goes in one ear and out the other: it never touches the heart. Karuk, he says, begins in the heart and moves to the mind. To say you love something, you say ick-ship-eee-mihni. “This is serious,” he says. “If you tell a woman eee-mihni, well, you’d better be ready to marry her.”
“This mountain has my heart.”
Caleen Sisk is the spiritual leader and the tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe—and a last speaker of the language that sustains her people’s identity. Above you see her sending smoke prayers up to Mount Shasta.
For a hundred years, the tribe has been fighting with the U.S. government over its territory along the McCloud River, abutting Mount Shasta, which they consider their birthplace. Loss of land and loss of language are connected, says Sisk. “This land is our church.”
[ songgaar ]
‘go back’ or ‘the future’
[ burungaar ]
‘go forward’ or ‘the past’
Tuvans believe that the past is ahead of them while the future lies behind. The children who flock to this bungee-cord ride outside the National Museum of Tuva look to the future, but it’s behind them, not yet seen.
[ khei-àt ]
‘air horse’ or ‘a spiritual place within’
Ai-Xaan Oorzhak throat sings and plays the igil, or horse-head fiddle, with bow techniques like “make horse walk.” Singers use the term “air horse” to describe the spiritual depths they draw from to produce the harmonic sounds.
[ oktaar ]
‘to throw or take down’
A Tuvan wrestling match is decided when the first man is thrown to the ground—when any part of his body other than the soles of his feet touches the ground. Valeriy Ondar and Sholban Mongush warm up in traditional costumes at a celebration in Kyzyl featuring more than 250 wrestlers competing for cars, refrigerators, and a stove. Competitors can be locked in positions for hours, testing each other’s points of power and weakness.
[ anayim ]
‘my little goat’
Aidyng Kyrgys caresses his newborn baby girl, whom he refers to using this tender term of endearment. The arrival of an infant is cause for a celebration and feasting for the whole family.
[ ak byzaa ]
‘white calf, less than one year’
Raising sheep, yaks, and goats on the Siberian steppe is so central to Tuvan life that the vocabulary for livestock is embedded with detailed information about each animal’s age, gender, fertility, coloration.
The Spirit of the Bear Shaman Center feels more like a walk-in clinic, except the staff wears head dresses made of feathers and fur and long coats covered with fabric snakes, medallions of metal and leather for protection, embroidered eyes for seeing into other dimensions, feathers for flying between worlds.
Tuvans believe in the power of Shamans to read their future and heal their bodies and spirits by mediating with the forces of nature on their behalf. They come to visit for good fortune and bad karma. Though many Tuvans are Buddhist by religion they are shamanists by belief, which shows in their daily lives when they offer the first tea of the day to nature or smudge a problem car with juniper.
Ulug Khem District—Putting up hay for their animals to last the long winter is an essential and backbreaking labor. The women gather the hay in the field and the men fling pitchforks full to the waiting truck. It is done in community, as are many things in the countryside with a constant chatter of Tuvan.
[ artyštaar ]
‘to burn juniper’ | ‘to purify’
A Tuvan shaman cleanses the house of a deceased relative’s spirit using smoke from burning juniper to chase away darkness. The incense fills the room as the family ask the spirits of hearth and home to protect them.
1,000 - 2,000 speakers
[ tradzy ]
‘a necklace of yellow stone beads’
The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will receive this necklace as her dowery at her wedding.
[ shobotro vyew ]
‘to calculate bride price using twigs’
The price for an Aka marriage is negotiated with bamboo sticks. The groom’s side lays down a number representing money and gifts, and the bride’s family counteroffers. Families can haggle for months using the same sticks.
[ chofe gidego ]
‘is looking at liver’
A marriage is not recognized until after the ritual slaughter of a mithan, a type of cattle, when its liver can be read. The verdict: A small spot might signal an accident in the couple’s future but otherwise a happy life.
Palizi-Koro Aka village-Portrait of Govardhan Nimasow, the Ñuggo, village king or big man has 4 wives and 26 children. His house is one of the few totally concrete structures. It sits above the town overlooking the main street, There are two kitchens with pots and fire pits large enough to feed a tiny army. There is a special term for such a man, Ñuggo. The title means an embodiment of an ideal individual who has the spirit of service, tolerance and helpfulness in the community. A Ñuggo is supposed to use his wealth wisely and compassionately. He is a man of humility, a mediator. He wears a gaga or crown and his wives wear their traditional necklaces. Each color of bead has a different name. These are their wealth and status.
650 - 1,000 speakers
[ ziix quih haasax haaptxö quih áno cöcacaaixaj ]
‘one who strongly greets with joy/peace/harmony’
There is no greeting among the Seris akin to a handshake or wave. But Josué Robles Barnett demonstrates a gesture that used to be performed when arriving in a strange community to convey you meant no harm.
[ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]
‘Where is your placenta buried?’
This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.
[ atcz ]
‘daughter of a parent’s younger sibling’
[ azaac ]
‘daughter of a parent’s older sibling’
The Seri people have more than fifty terms for close kinship relationships, such as between these two cousins, many specific to the gender and birth order of the relative. A woman uses a different word for father than a man does.
[ hant iiha cöhacomxoj ]
‘ones who have been told the ancient things’
Sitting inside a traditional enclosure, Isabel Chavela Torres is
blind and nearly deaf, but still passes on traditional
knowledge. The Seri names for species in the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of
California reveal behaviors scientists have only recently begun to discover. Elders are critical to saving and passing on such knowledge.
[ hepem cöicooit ]
‘one who dances like the white-tailed deer’
Chavela’s grandson Jorge Luis Montaño Herrera shakes gourd rattles and assumes the identity of a deer. Just as his grandmother once sang him traditional melodies, he now wants to teach the deer dance to Seri children.
[ heeno cmaam ]
‘woman from place of the plants’
Herbalists like Juanita Herrera Casanova are greatly esteemed in the Seri community for their knowledge of herbal medicine and traditional ceremonies. Herrera searches out desert lavender, desert mistletoe, and desert senna and carries the bounty home on her head.
Martha Monroy, an expert basket maker, uses her teeth to strip fiber from branches of haat, a species of linberbush. Soaked in salt water to keep the branches pliable, the women make splints from the core of the flexible stems. The use of baskets in Seri homes ended with the import of plastic so now they are primarily sold as art. Some bring thousands of dollars on the international market.
Victoria Astorga Encinas (90+ years) holds a beloved stone she has used for her traditional pottery for many years. Her tools are shells and stones and carry individual names. The stone in her hand is Haxz Ipl or Dog's tongue. And of course, she is surrounded by dogs, as is everyone in this village.
[ ziix hacx tiij catax ]
‘thing that moves on its own’
As modern inventions like cars enter their world, the Seris tend to adapt their language rather than import Spanish words. Erica Barnett uses an abandoned car as a hothouse to grow mangroves to replenish an estuary. She wants to protect Paradiseóa spot of beach and estuary she and her sister have known since childhood. It is a place just a 15 min walk up the shore that is full of mangroves and memories, a place that was a hideout for Seris on the run from Mexican soldiers a century ago, where they used to submerge their reed boats with stones in preparation for a quick get away to Tiburon Island. Today, Erica has decided the best way to protect the estuary is to replenish the mangroves that grow there by reseeding from the plants she ís growing out in the abandoned cars that sit in the family yard. Such cars are ubiquitous in this community sitting on rocks instead of tires. What better use than to be full of plants—hot house cars!