Tiwa is not a written language – and out of respect, many speakers don’t wish to provide written translations. Other traditions may differ from that of Taos Pueblo, which speaks northern Tiwa, as does Picuris
The white stuff falling softly from the sky is the world’s most beautiful sight, no matter what you call it. “Nieve” I recall, in Spanish, as I navigate my Mexican ski student on to his first chairlift ride. I teach in Spanish in desperate times, and I practice speaking with Dennis, my liftie friend, though I suspect him of teaching me some local off-color words. No matter, my Mexican student won’t know them either. And the Tiwa word for snow is…? I don’t know, because my Taos Pueblo friend won’t tell me. It doesn’t work like that. But if you want to understand culture, listen for language. Don’t listen for the words; listen for meaning.
Get an earful, as I do, by simply putting your ear to the local tracks. I like to listen to the lifties or the checkers at my neighborhood Albertson’s, in the aisles of Wal-Mart, or with neighbors and friends. I listen as my fashionista friend Patricia switches to Tiwa when it’s her mom on the phone.
The real heartbeat of northern New Mexico beats on in Spanish dichos (sayings) and in the sound of daily life aqui in Taos. Or read Larry Torres’ hilarious Spanglish column in the bilingual weekly Taos News (aka El Crepesculo). Language goes deep, I think, and Joseph Rael, a Tiwa (and Ute) speaker, puts it this way, in his book Sound: “Everything is encoded in the gene pool. Whatever language we speak, we are speaking from that particular culture, but beneath that there is a code that is understood universally. One of the ways to tap in to this code is to listen to how we pronounce words. Sounds are important. For instance, the sound ‘waa’ in English is part of the word ‘one.’ ‘Waa’ in Tiwa means life. Behind both of these is a common essential idea encoded in the human gene pool.”
My Taos Pueblo friend Mildred Young and I have been at Wired Café talking about Tiwa, the endangered Tiwa language she teaches. She is singing sweetly, and I imagine the underlying beat of soft drums. I recognize it as “one little two little three little Indians” not by words but by melody. This is one of the ways that they are keeping language alive, through their programs with kids – and there’s a Baby Tiwa program. The kids are the teachers, taking language back home to their parents, many of whom never learned.
“Why does it sound so gentle?” I ask her.
“It’s ‘rounded,’” she says. “There are no hard edges.” As we part ways, she asks if I would like some mushrooms. It is late fall, with the last leaves drifting down and the last of the mushrooms just picked.
Would I? Would I! I prize two foods above all others—oysters and wild mushrooms. One speaks the stories of oceans, the other, of lands. Even a taste makes the world a vaster and more exciting place. In the back of her car, a mountain of stout brown and white mushrooms are clotted with black dirt and swathed in newspapers. I close my eyes and inhale deeply—three lungfulls—the luxurious scent.
Mildred knows I love language. I was once her college English teacher. In teaching anywhere—at the ski valley or the local college—language is central. You have to know where—culturally, personally, and linguistically—students are coming from. I had one who grew up with Spanish and said that as a kid, he didn’t know which words were English, and which Spanish, which makes sense when you remember that English never was the first language of New Mexico. Our students indeed become our teachers, as in the case of my former student Mildred. Now there are programs like the Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) in Santa Fe to help Native people keep their languages—like Tiwa and its sister language, Tewa—alive.
Her Tiwa-learning kids at the Taos Pueblo Day school are learning in integrated fashion, and they adore picking mushrooms with her in their after-school program. They learn something else, too—traditional values. Mildred tells them “always cover the earth back up and show that you are thankful.” She also teaches the names of places.
She says that there are “stories about the culture that can only be told in our language. Some try to translate what’s going on but it’s like skimming. You can’t capture the true meaning.”
As I sit struggling to learn in Spanish class, many of my classmates are the grandchildren of Spanish speakers; the younger generations are losing it. What else is lost, I wonder? Some Mexican and Hispano and Anglo kids are now together in special Spanish immersion classes in their grade schools in Taos. One sad chapter of this history was the destruction of languages and cultures as Native kids, and Spanish too, were punished in English-speaking schools for speaking their own languages.
When the Spanish colonizers arrived here, four centuries ago, they brought Spanish to the Brave New World and because northern New Mexican (formerly Mexican) mountain villages were isolated, so, too, was their Spanish. Some say it’s like speaking Shakespeare (it’s ancient) and others say it’s like rural Castilian (though one Castilian speaker I know couldn’t understand the folks over here in Peñasco.) But language never holds still, it is a living, breathing thing. It leans, it borrows, it corrupts and it corrupts absolutely. Roughly paraphrasing Joseph Rael, language is vibration and vibration is life and language resonates with its geography.
Ruben Cobos, who celebrated neomexicano Spanish his entire 99 years, wrote the book about it, A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish. “Relatively uniform,” as he called the Spanish here, included a relatively crazy fusion of Indigenous languages from Mexico (Nahuatl) and Rio Grande Pueblos.
Another of my students, David Maes, who grew up speaking local Spanish in Ranchos, reports troublesome incidents, like asking a taxi driver in Puerto Rico “me puedes dar un ride al la base del Coast Guard.” The driver didn’t get it, because there one says “dar pon.” Actually, David reports, “llevar en coche” is pretty standard. Except perhaps in Mexico where it’s “dar aventon” or in Peru where it’s “dar jalada” or Venezuela where it’s “dar cola,” or here where it’s “un ride.”
Then David set up an appointment with the governor for a 7:30 almurzo (breakfast) meeting, before learning that in Puerto Rice, almurzo meant lunch. Everybody—I mean everybody—in New Mexico knows that the words for lunch is el lonche, in the same way that troka is truck.
The mushrooms turned out to be an embarrassment of riches. It gradually dawned on me that no one else wanted to clean them, or cook them and especially they did not want to eat them. They did not know from whence they’d come (you mean like McDonalds?) and neither did they know the name in English. Mushrooms, like language, are wild, unpredictable, powerful, and just possibly dangerous. The wrong mushroom or the wrong word just might spell death.
But I cooked them the way I have always cooked mushrooms, all over the world, with garlic and butter and relish (the passion, not the condiment). And I did not die, but lived all the more richly, changed by an experience which began on the tongue. Still, they tasted different. I can’t find the words in English to describe them: kind of like mystery, kind of like adventure, kind of like earth.
Dr. Michele Potter has lived in Taos for seventeen years, teaching American Studies and English at UNM and skiing at Taos Ski Valley. She speaks French, Spanish, German, and Norwegian—all of them badly.
Dr. Potter’s article appears in SkiCountry 2014 on page 26.