Jeremy Johns Creates Path to Save a Native Language

by John Stapleton, Contributing Editor

Jeremy Johns says his early childhood on the Ak-Chin Indian Community reservation was filled with great experiences and memories. Time was spent walking to the store with friends, buying snacks, hanging out at the park after school, and his summers were spent at the community center pool. The sun dropping over the western horizon meant it was time to go in, and Johns says he can still hear the voice of his mother calling from the front porch that dinner was ready.

“I always think of Ak-Chin as home because it’s where I’m from, where I was raised and where I made the best memories,” he says.

Nowadays, Johns is thousands of miles away from home earning his doctorate and studying linguistics at Yale University. He was the first tribal member to be accepted into an Ivy League school. His mission: to help dispel negative cultural stereotypes while preserving and teaching his native O’odham language.

“There’s a common assumption that culture and language are somehow separable,” Johns says. “For us as O’odham, they exist within each other. What we call our ‘himdag’ encompasses all aspects of O’odham epistemology, ontology and axiology, and language is deeply rooted in our ‘himdag’ as a means by which we can perfectly express all aspects of our unique cultural and societal composition.

“To us, language and culture are inextricable from one another. Many of the difficulties that exist in maintaining and promoting language and culture fall out of historical language oppression as a result of assimilationist policies beginning in the late 1800s that promoted the idea of ‘kill the Indian, save the man,’ at its core was meant to replace indigenous beliefs, practices and ways of being with Western Eurocentric cultural norms. This included psychological conditioning to accept English as a superior language.”

Further, “There are still many side effects of this era that are being dealt with in modern Native communities. This often intersects with modern sociological issues of language dominance and linguistic privilege such that language shift may be covertly, or in some cases overtly, facilitated through language policy and practice.

“When you learn a foreign language in high school, for example, there’s a real possibility you’ll be able to go to a community or country where that language is spoken and be able to put into practice what you learned in class. When you’re learning a language that was formerly spoken in your own home, those same opportunities become less available as a result of language shift. And that shift feeds back into sociolinguistic oppression and discrimination as common undercurrents in language attrition.

“All this is to say that there are a number of internal and external factors that contribute to the uphill battle of language reclamation, but there is a real commitment communitywide to retain our cultural and linguistic heritage. I’m doing my part to help with that effort through teaching. However, the language isn’t mine alone and I would never purport to be an authority on the language, i.e., I don’t feel that I am or should be the only one doing something. Rather, the language is part of our collective cultural heritage. It belongs to all O’odham, which also means we all equally bear the responsibility to teach, learn and maintain it.”

The shift, or “language split” referred to happens over multiple generations, Johns says. While in immigrant families this is the “norm,” they also have the ability to return to their ancestor’s homeland to get a taste of the original culture and language. Indigenous people do not have this option.

“We still have lots of speakers of the language but demographically they tend to be older, while younger generations primarily learn English first,” Johns says. “If that trend continues and nothing is done to reverse it, the shift will be complete in the next few generations.”

Johns says that during “our parents’ generation, people were still learning and using the language as their first language but more English language influence was being imported through schooling and mainstream media.

“In my generation, the scales really tipped. English was used the majority of the time and O’odham was only used or heard in more specific contexts. Much of this shift had and has to do with diglossic patterns in language use and perceived sociolinguistic prestige. Lots of people stopped teaching their children the language because they were forced to speak English in school, older generations were punished for it and we still have elders who can tell you exactly how, and people were led to believe that O’odham was an ‘inferior’ language and if they wanted to succeed they not only needed English but using any other language would hinder their ability to speak English correctly.

“You sometimes hear some parents say they just wanted to save their children from the hardships they endured by being non-native English speakers. Although linguists today know that speaking more than one language as a child isn’t at all detrimental, some argue that childhood is actually the most optimal time to learn another language, some of these sentiments still exist.”

The key to preservation is through education. John’s own path has been challenging at times. His mother, Carla Carlyle, says Johns was headed down the wrong path as a teenager. She sat down with her son and made the difficult choice of pulling him from the hometown high school with his friends and putting him into the Phoenix school district. Carlyle, a single mother, made the daily 120-mile commute with morning and afternoon round-trips, all while working on the Ak-Chin reservation.

“Transporting him to and from school was a bit of a challenge,” Carlyle says. “No buses from the Valley came out to Maricopa at the time so this is what we did. I would drive Jeremy to Mountain Pointe in Phoenix every morning, return to my workplace in Ak-Chin, take my lunch hour back to Phoenix to pick him up after school, return him home and continue to finish out my workday. This was our new normal routine for a couple of years until he was able to obtain his drivers license.”

Johns’ college years started in Hawaii. He graduated from the University of Manoa with a bachelor’s degree in applied linguistics and Spanish. He then returned to the Ak-Chin community as a technician in the language department and continued his education at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, respectively, obtaining his master’s in American Indian Studies and his master’s in linguistics.

Johns would also take on teaching roles during these years at Tohono O’odham Community College and the Tucson Indian Center. Johns says he hopes to graduate with his Ph.D. from Yale in the coming years.

“Education is a big part of the community I grew up in,” he says. “It’s really common among Native students that we often get degrees to come home and use them in our communities. That’s always been the impetus behind me pursuing higher education, finding something that interests me and that I’m good at, and finding some way that I can put whatever I learn to use for the good of the community.”

The big goal is for a school dedicated to the O’odham language and culture.

“One aspect of language rights commonly discussed in the context of linguistic minorities is the right to receive an education in one’s heritage language,” Johns says.

“A long-term goal of mine is to see a school open where O’odham students can not only learn the language but learn subject material through the language. Another goal is to encourage younger O’odham individuals to take up the scientific study of our language.

“My wish is that the research that I do now will be learned from, drawn upon, scrutinized, and challenged by future O’odham linguists — because even if they’re proving me wrong, they’re still studying, analyzing, and documenting the linguistic intricacies of our language which means I won’t be the last to do so. And hopefully, that will spark a new tradition that will continue on for many generations after me.”