When he began recording the words of a Native speaker 40 years ago, linguist Noel Rude had no idea that his life’s work would form the foundation of the first dictionary for the Umatilla language.

Rude, who died in November of 2021, was one of three linguists who recorded and documented Plateau languages for future generations. Haruo Aoki died in February of this year and Bruce Rigsby “crossed over to the land of light” a month later in March.

Now, the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, who together make up the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), are remembering the three men and their contributions.

Those early recordings of Umatilla voices are invaluable, according to Phillip Cash Cash, a member of the Weyíiletpu (Cayuse) and Nuumiipuu (Nez Perce) tribes who has doctorates in linguistics and anthropology from the University of Arizona.“The first generation of modern linguists who worked on the languages of the Southern Plateau have given us a profoundly important record into the life worlds of our ancestral speech communities,” Cash Cash said. “For those of us who follow in their footsteps, we are greatly indebted to their groundbreaking documentary work.”

Rude died seven years after the University of Washington Press published the 622-page Umatilla dictionary, which also includes similar Sahaptin words spoken in the languages of the Nez Perce and the Walla Walla people. Sahaptin is a language family that encompasses the specific languages spoken by many high plateau tribes in the Columbia River basin. Sahaptin-speaking peoples included the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Nez Perce, Yakama, Klickitat, Kittitas, Wanapum, Palus, Lower Snake, Skinpah, and Tenino.

Bobbie Conner, director at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the museum and archive repository for the CTUIR, said she was a young girl when the three linguists and a handful of other anthropologists started working “amongst us” in the 1960s.

Together, Rude, Rigsby and Aoki stand as legends in capturing local Indigenous languages, developing a written system for the oral tradition and documenting the languages in standardized ways in order to better preserve them for future generations.

“The work of these men is itself the unequivocal shelf reference for us engaged in linguistic, cultural and historical work now and for the future,” Conner said.

When a Native speaker dies, names, phrases and words of a tribal language can be lost forever, Conner said.

“That is why it is so important for the words of elders to be recorded and documented,” Conner said. “For tribes whose entire history is transmitted over thousands of years through the oral tradition, a written language is a modern convention. A system for writing down a symbol for every sound in an undocumented language is necessary.”

‘They gave decades of their lives’

Rude, Rigsby and Aoki talked with dozens of elders from several tribes of the Interior Columbia Plateau to document the meaning, pronunciation, spelling, and context of Plateau languages.

Rigsby first and later Rude focused their study on the Umatilla language, preserving for the ages knowledge of tribal lifeways and philosophy embedded in those Indigenous words. During that same time period, Aoki compiled a dictionary of the words of the Nez Perce, who are known to themselves as the Nimíipuu.

Rigsby contributed to “Čáw Pawá Laakni – They are Not Forgotten, a Sahaptian Place Names Atlas for the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla People,” which was published in 2015.

The dictionary and atlas contain Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce words. The latter became the language of the Cayuse as well.

In the 1940s, many of the last fluent Cayuse speakers, mostly older men who worked during pea harvest in the area, married Nez Perce women. Their children were taught the language of the Nimíipuu, who lived on their own reservation in western Idaho, under their 1855 Treaty.

Through intermarriage, Nez Perce became the more dominant language, eventually replacing Cayuse “for the sake of communication,” said Modesta Minthorn, director of the Education Department for the CTUIR.

Before adopting the Nez Perce language, the Cayuse people knew themselves as “Iiksiyu.” Later, they became known as “Weyíiletpu,” a Nez Perce term meaning “people of the waving rye grass.”

Rude, Rigsby and Aoki gave decades of their lives to Plateau language preservation, Conner said. She added that Rude and Rigsby assisted the place-names atlas project “in untold ways” over its 14-year incubation. Rigsby wrote the atlas foreword and contributed to other sections of the 250-page volume.

Aoki collaborated with elders to record the Nez Perce language, which is spoken among tribes in Idaho, Washington and Oregon. He meticulously documented that language into a Nez Perce dictionary in 1994.

Haruo Aoki receives blanket from Nez Perce scholars Beth Piatote (right) and Angel Sobotta. UC Berkeley photo by Melani King

Noel Rude: diligent and mostly serious

Rude’s work with the Sahaptian languages began in the 1960s with Elizabeth Wilson, a Nez Perce speaker, in Kamiah, Idaho. He later talked with elders from Idaho, Oregon and Washington while doing graduate research at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Modesta, the former CTUIR Language Program manager, is the daughter of Zelma and Antone Minthorn, who both attended the University of Oregon in Eugene in the late 1970s — the years when Rude gathered information for his dissertation. Modesta’s parents were both fluent Nez Perce speakers.

Modesta met Rude as a child.

“Mom told him she would share words if he would teach the alphabet to me and my sisters — Kim, Lisa and Toni,” Modesta said.

Modesta says that’s how she and her sisters learned the basics of the Umatilla language: as told to Rude by their mother.

Rude finished his thesis on Nez Perce language, grammar and discourse after Antone, Zelma and the children moved back to the Umatilla Reservation where Antone was elected chair of the CTUIR General Council. (The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes moved together to a 526,000-acre reservation in Eastern Oregon under the terms of the Treaty of 1855. The U.S. government later reduced the size of the reservation by half.)

In his leadership role, Antone began talking with other elected officers about preserving the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce languages.

“Dad said, ‘I know a guy,’ and reached out to Noel,” Modesta said.

In 1982, Rude arrived at the Umatilla Reservation.

“He didn’t have a place to stay, but that’s how he rolled,” Modesta said.

Rude began recording the words of elder women who were willing to share their language. Others refused to speak with him.

There was a gap in Rude’s work when he moved to the desert of Mexico where the heat helped his ailing lungs. But he maintained his relationship with Modesta’s parents.

In the early 1990s, Antone Minthorn again turned to Rude. As chair of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, Antone began pushing the tribal government to establish a language program that would preserve and promote speaking the three CTUIR languages.

Rude was the first employee hired in 1996 as a linguist in the CTUIR Language Program. His initial focus as a linguist was to continue interviewing and documenting the words of tribal elders.

For the next decade, Modesta said, fluent language speakers were afraid Rude might use his research to create a book and sell it. Fearing that potential exploitation, some elder speakers did not want to share with Rude or anyone else who might profit from the ancient language.

Rude was fortunate to find speakers when he did.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were fewer than a dozen fluent speakers for all three languages. Today, no more than eight remain. Antone, now 87, currently works as a Nez Perce speaker in the CTUIR Language Program. Zelma died in 2003, at the age of 66.

Rude was diligent and mostly serious, but he had a fun side in his day-to-day work that endeared him to many elders.

Modesta said Rude had a profound sense of humor.

“Noel could laugh at most anything and definitely had a quick wit,” she said. “One time, while I was in my master’s program [at the University of Oregon], him and I got into a discussion about linguistics. We were so into the discussion we did not notice all of the elders were sleeping in their chairs. We looked up and he said, ‘That is why not everyone is a linguist. It’s too boring.’ Him and I laughed, and they all opened their eyes and laughed at us. Good times with all of them.”

Rude was a “walking repository” of elders’ testaments and “deep,” or underlying, language structures, according to Modesta.

“Many people thought he was teaching the language, but he was actually teaching linguistics, the study of languages — basic grammar, morphology [the study of the forms of words] and phonetics [the study and classification of speech sounds],” Modesta said. “You can’t really do research and not learn the language.”

But his life's work was the dictionary. It was intended to be the legacy of the elders who worked arduously with Rude for decades.

“This is a gift to the youth,” Rude wrote in his introduction to the Umatilla Dictionary. “No matter where they find themselves, they will have access to the beautiful words of their elders. May this kindle their curiosity! And may their elders’ legacy never fade.”

Rude was “ecstatic when we published in 2014,” said Modesta, who wrote the dictionary foreword.

Modesta wrote that the dictionary “brings together a large body of work that has spanned decades for the use of the descendants of fluent speakers who worked with Dr. Rude.”

Rude provided phonemic analysis [the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the smallest units of sound that help to differentiate word meanings] and the key for pronunciation.

In addition to the Umatilla language, the dictionary includes words in Nez Perce and Walla Walla.

“One thing people overlook is that the dictionary is multi-language,” Modesta said. “Noel wanted all three spoken languages reflected.”

That’s important, because the conversational language of the Walla Walla has died out. There are a few younger people who are considered apprentices in the Walla Walla language, but without a living fluent speaker to learn from, it’s unlikely that the apprentices will become fluent.

“I’m not aware of any fluent Walla Walla speakers,” Modesta said. “There are a few dialects spoken, but none on this reservation and, if there are, those speakers are up in age.”

Most recently, CTUIR created an online dictionary through a collaboration with Amazon. Now, anyone can use a search engine to translate any English word to the Umatilla language for pronunciation and definition.

Bruce Rigsby: a very tall Kentucky man

Bruce Rigsby attends a 2004 meeting of researchers and scholars at Tamastslik Cultural Institute to discuss draft entries for the atlas of Sahaptian placenames. Photo by Eugene Hunn, via University of Washington

Bruce Rigsby was an anthropologist who specialized in language and ethnography on two continents, Australia and North America.

In the 1970s, he studied the languages spoken by Indigenous people in what is now the Eastern Cape York Peninsula and Princess Charlotte Bay in Australia. Prior to his work in Australia, Rigsby co-authored “A Short Practical Dictionary of the Gitxsan Language.”

Today, the Gitxsan language, a Tsimshianic language of northwestern British Columbia, is considered endangered. According to the 2016 census, there were 1,020 native speakers, but few who are fluent. This dictionary, created more than 40 years ago, introduced a solid writing system to the Gitxsan language that is still used today.

Rigsby’s visits to the Umatilla Indian Reservation spanned 50 years, from the 1960s to 2010.

Conner, at Tamástslikt, remembers meeting Rigsby when she was 8 years old. The “very tall” Kentucky man became a member of Conner’s family and lived with her great-aunt Vera Spokane Jones. He would sweat with her grandfather, Gilbert Conner.

“We went to Mt. Adams and picked huckleberries together,” Conner said. “We camped for more than a week at Surprise Lakes with Auntie Vera, Bruce, Barbara (Rigsby’s wife), their kids, Jan and Mark, and our grandparents.”

Conner said Rigsby told her it was important that “our young people still have a bond to our homeland. He said that our identity in our land is how we stay strong.”

Rigsby recorded Conner’s great aunt and “wrote fast trying to keep up with her.” He would ask Vera questions, and then do his best to properly repeat the words.

“We all laughed together when he asked her to retell a story again, but slower, and she did retell it, only faster,” Conner said.

Haruo Aoki: he sat still and took notes

Before Haruo Aoki began his linguistics work in the 1950s, there was no definitive written system for the Nez Perce language. In 1994, after decades of immersive study, Aoki published his immense 1,280-page Nez Perce Dictionary.

In the early 1900s, the Catholic Jesuits had compiled a limited list of Nez Perce words. Additionally, anthropologist Archie Phinney, who was five-eighths Nez Perce, wrote the Nez Perce Texts. The texts are a collection of Nez Perce myths he recorded from his mother, Mary Lily Phinney, who spoke Nez Perce. The texts were written with alternating lines of English and Nez Perce, followed by an English summary.

Aoki could speak Nez Perce, but with a Japanese accent, which he feared would be picked up by the Nez Perce people. Instead of speaking, he generally sat still and took notes. He authored specialized linguistic articles on the language.

Aoki received his Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley in 1965 with a dissertation titled “Nez Perce Grammar.” When he died in February, Aoki was Professor Emeritus of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California.

Aoki also did linguistic fieldwork on the Nagasaki dialect of Japanese.

Much like Rude, Aoki listened to elders speak and transcribed their words into phonetic symbols. He organized them, with definitions, into a practical tool to facilitate their future use. At the request of Rude, Aoki came to the Umatilla Reservation to help with the dictionary.

Conner said the linguists were revered because they were humble and didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.

“They did their work within the tribal community, according to how our people lived,” Conner said. “They were not using us to achieve their own notoriety but worked with us to perpetuate the spoken languages.”

Modesta Minthorn said it was the work of the elders and the linguists that helped preserve not only languages, but the culture and lifestyle of tribal people.

“The people that dedicated their time to the compilation of this work are all gone,” Modesta wrote in the dictionary’s foreword. “This book has preserved their works and knowledge for all of us and for those of us yet to come, and places it truly in the heart of the people.”

Lead image: Noel Rude, center, was honored in 2012 for his years of work as a linguist with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Education Department. Back row, from left: Master Speakers Thomas Morning Owl, Kristen Parr, Antone Minthorn, and current CTUIR Interim Deputy Executive Teara Farrow Ferman. In the front with Rude is Umatilla Master Speaker Mildred Quaempts. Photo courtesy of Jill-Marie Gavin of the Confederated Umatilla Journal

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ContributorWil Phinney has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years at newspapers in Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. He recently retired after 24 years as editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal,...