EUGENE, Ore. - The University of Oregon honored the school's oldest-ever graduate during June 2012's commencement ceremonies Monday.
Virginia Beavert, 90, an elder in Washington’s Yakama tribe, received her doctorate in linguistics
Beavert speaks six native languages, has written a Yakama Sahaptin dictionary, and is currently working on a second edition.
Beavert also is responsible for bringing a $250,000 gift to the UO’s Linguistics Department to help fund the Northwest Indian Language Institute.
Beavert was among 1,075 students who receives graduate degrees. Another 3,940 received bachelor’s degrees.
The new graduates came from 61 countries and 47 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.
View a March 2012 interview with Beavert about native languages
EUGENE, Ore. - Virginia Beavert grew up in a little village just down the road from Yakima, Wash.
Beavert did not go to government school. However, the Yakama native did learned to speak several different languages while growing up.
"My first language was Nez Perce," Beavert said. "My father was from Umatilla, and I learned his language. My mother spoke Yakama, so I learned that, too."
But now some of those languages she's learned have disappeared altogether.
"Klickitat is no longer spoken," Beavert said. "I can read the language, but I'm the only one."
According to the Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI), only 5 out of the 26 original Native American languages in Oregon are still spoken.
"With boarding schools, children were taken from their families and taken away to schools and forced to speak English," said Janne Underriner, Director at the Northwest Indian Language Institute.
But through NILI, instructors are teaching the Sahaptin langauge, a dialect of the Yakama nation.
The course is offered through the University of Oregon.
Instructor Roger Jacob said he is still learning the language himself.
"It wasn't until fairly recently that I realized that I wasn't hearing it as much anymore," Jacob said.
"We'd like to retain our identity, our language and our culture," Beavert said. "I think it's important to preserve that because I see globally people disappearing."
In addition to the University of Oregon college courses, the institute also provides curriculum for first grade immersion and after school programs for children in the area.