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Sunday, March 30, 1997
Oklahoma Comanches seek roots of language in
By MARLA DIAL
San Angelo Standard-Times
PAINT ROCK, Texas - A search for cultural roots has led a band
of Comanche Indians to West Texas to study what could be some
of their tribe's oldest writings.
About 15 people from Oklahoma spent Monday afternoon at Fred
and Kay Campbell's ranch, learning about the painted rocks that
gave the nearby town its name. Although their meaning is not always
clear, vivid red portraits decorating the yellow-faced, rocky
bluffs hint at great events: tribal council meetings, solar eclipses,
war party raids and captures.
Etched onto stone centuries ago, those silent paintings now
could help inject new life into the dying Comanche language.
"We're trying to build the awareness that once that language
is gone, so goes the Comanche people," said Ron Red Elk,
president of the Comanche Language and Culture Preservation Committee.
The committee, with about 30 members in Oklahoma, was organized
nearly four years ago in hopes of passing the Comanche language
on to present and future generations.
Because federal government policies for years were designed
to stamp out Native American languages - sending children to boarding
schools and punishing them if they spoke anything but English
- only aged Comanches now speak their language fluently, Red Elk
said. Many elders die without passing on their knowledge.
To further complicate matters, the language had no written
form until 1993 - after the federal government stepped up funding
for the 1990 Native American Languages Act.
That is one reason the Paint Rock pictographs were so exciting
to members of the Preservation Committee. Although many tribes
- including Jumanos, Apaches and Tonkawas - may have left their
marks, many paintings almost certainly were made by Comanches.
The Oklahoma group, which included several fluent Comanche
speakers, gazed through binoculars or videocams at the paintings
as Kay Campbell explained the symbols. Several times, she and
her husband offered different suggestions for the meanings of
the vague drawings, but both were eager to learn from their guests
Fred Campbell noted that although the bluffs along the Concho
River often were used as Indian campsites, no burial grounds have
been found on the land. He wondered whether Comanches may have
scooped out shallow graves beneath the large rocks and placed
"Yeah," said Ray Niedo, a tribal elder. "My
people, they have no burial grounds."
Niedo noted that Comanches often threw gray paint in the face
of the dead, covered the body with rocks "and just took off."
"They had so many enemies, they had to be on the alert
at all times," he said.
The tour also included lessons from range expert Dr. Jake Landers
about native plants of the area. Passing around acorns and algerita
branches, he made the past tangible to the tribal group.
As a final touch - and in keeping with Comanche tradition -
Niedo recited a prayer of blessing in his ancient tongue.
Carney Saupitty Jr., a Comanche Business Committee official,
said the Paint Rock trip taught him more about his ancestors'
lives in West Texas.
"This is something I've never seen before," he said,
glancing up at the bluffs.
Preservation Committee officials hope to return to Paint Rock
later this year with more Comanche visitors.
As Red Elk put it, "This is another phase of my education
as a Comanche."
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