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Sunday, March 30, 1997

Oklahoma Comanches seek roots of language in West Texas

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 as well.

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 bodies there.

"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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