Oral historian hopes to bring documentation project to Alaska

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Karen Begay is working on keeping Native American languages from becoming extinct by recording and documenting tribal and family history. She has been invited to Alaska by the Haida Tribe but without some donations to her cause, she may not be able to go.

The tribe invited her to visit Nov. 21 when the fishing boats all return home and they have a big celebration.

Begay envisions turning her recordings and documentation of elders speaking in their own language into an archive titled Native American Oral History that can be passed on to future generations.

In addition to her dedication of one of her documentaries to veterans, Begay said she has taken on another project about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people. She said she has a friend, who is a Vietnam veteran and a transgender man and who wanted to have ceremonies done as he transitions from one gender to the other. He invited her to the ceremony.

"I want to go ahead and do a documentary about this because there's so many stereotypes about these people," Begay said. "Before western people came here, these people were respected and held in a special part of the community [in Native American society]."

Begay said that was because they were coming from two sides of a person, a male and female spirit.

"People would come to them, because they could have both of those viewpoints," she said. "I feel like those people have a voice and they also need to be heard. And that's from a different cultural perspective of that whole thing."

A big part of her original project was capturing the time when the elders grew up, a time that does not exist now and letting the elders speak in their own language to tell stories of that time. She said she has had a lot of contact from others since her own project was published. She discovered that others are working on the same type of projects as she is. But she feels that there are enough stories out there for everyone to record and tell.

She still is worried about the younger generations who don't know their language, their tribe, the history of their own people, or where they come from. Begay's grandparents said this cultural disconnection was coming - a time when people became disconnected from their culture, traditions and languages.

She said she is trying to stop that from happening and she wants younger people to take advantage of the people they have around them, to learn their own stories.

"I feel encouraged by it and I encourage anybody out there to get into their culture and explore whatever is out there, while its there," Begay said. "If you have ancestry right there that's still alive, the elder that's still alive right there, I encourage those people to talk to them and learn what they can from them."

She said that is an opportunity that many who grew up in the boarding school era did not have and one of the traumas they endured when growing up.

"Culture, language, tradition, a lot of different things were taken, removed from a child's life," Begay said. "If it's right there, I would encourage those people to find out about it and learn from it. Learn everything they can from it."

Her inspiration came from a talk she heard given by Dennis Banks, a Native American teacher, lecturer, activist and author. Begay said that talk led to her traveling across the U.S. to see how other tribes were living and finding out about the difficult circumstances some of them live in.

Visiting sites where massacres of Native Americans occurred, Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn among others, moved her deeply and inspires her project. She said when she visited those places she could feel the heaviness in the land and it brought out a lot of emotion, thinking about the people who were killed. That inspired her to want to give back to her people.

She also heard one of the Navajo Codetalkers speak in Flagstaff during Veteran's Day.

"He gave a really good talk," Begay said. "That kind of talk really brings, just touches my heart, just about brings me to tears, because of what they went through."

She wants to keep shedding light on the positive things embracing one's culture can bring, especially language and said that the Codetalkers saved this country.

The recordings are translated from whichever language a tribe member has spoken in and subtitled after Begay records them.

Begay said each tribe's own history and language and each family's own story is what guides her. She does not care what kind of story is told as long as it is a part of each tribe's history.

She also said that fear of the loss of language drives her and she does not want to see any more languages die out.

"I love to hear people speaking in their own languages," Begay said.

Begay lives in Flagstaff, Arizona and attended Northern Arizona University where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She is a painter. She is currently attending Southern New Hampshire University and is working on a master's degree in English/creative writing/poetry. She eventually wants to write a book. More information about Begay or donating to her project is available from Begay at kbegay46@yahoo.com or at (928) 606-8943.

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