reprinted w/o permission from the 1.14.96 New York Times
Red Thunder Cloud, a member of the Catawba Nation who was steeped in the history of the American Indians, died Monday in Worcester, Mass. He was the last human link to the ancient language of his people.
Thunder Cloud, who was 76, died in St. Vincent's Hospital after a stroke, friends said Thunder Cloud was also know as Carlos Westez and lived in Northbridge, Mass. He was a storyteller and earned money from selling his own line of teas from herbs that he collected in the woods around his home.
"It's always sad when the last living speaker of a language dies," Carl Teeter, emeritus professor of linguistics at Harvard University, said on Friday. "There were once 500 languages in North America. About a hundred are still spoken, and half of them
are spoken by older people." Dr. Teeter said the Catawba language, like others, had died off because of prejudice. Not so long ago, he said, Americans who spoke Indian languages "weren't treated too well."
Dr. Teeter described Catawba, an oral language with no written form, as related to the Sioux family of languages. He said the similarity indicated that there may have been considerable movement among Indian tribes hundreds of years ago.
In the 1940's, Thunder Cloud made a complete recording of all he knew of the Catawba language for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. About that time, he also recorded some ancient Catawba songs for the Smithsonian Institution. Derek Jordan of Putney, Vt., a friend of Thunder Cloud's, recorded two albums of Catawba songs and legends by Thunder Cloud in 1990.
Mr. Jordan said Thunder Cloud had learned Catawba as a boy from his grandfather, Strong Eagle, and from tribal elders. Eventually, there were only two Catawba speakers left: Thunder Cloud and a woman, who died about 40 years ago.
Foxx Ayers of Columbia, S.C., a Catawba and friend of Thunder Cloud, recalled on Friday that he resisted his grandmother's efforts to teach him the language because he feared he would be ridiculed. "I wish now that I'd learned," said. Ayers, 71.
Mr. Ayers recalled one happy experiment with the language. One day years ago, he was visiting Thunder Cloud, who used to sell pottery made by Mr. Ayer's wife, Sarah, who is also a Catawba. Mr. Ayers's arms were full of pottery when he found his way blocked by Thunder Cloud's dog. The dog responded only to commands in Catawba. So Ayers tried one phrase he had heard Thunder Cloud use (roughly "Swie hay, tanty," or "Move, dog"), and the dog obeyed.
Alice Kasakoff, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, said the conversion of many Catawbas after visits by Mormon missionaries to their enclave in South Carolina may have hastened the decline of the Indian language.
Estimates of the number of living Catabaws range from several hundred to more than 1,000. The nation's headquarters is in Rock Hill, S.C.
In its scarcity of close relationships, Thunder Cloud's life seemed to foreshadow the passing of the language only he spoke. Mr. Ayers said he recalled that Thunder Cloud was married for a time to a Blackfeet woman, but that the union dissolved.
Lenora Pena of Center Falls, R.I., who described herself as Thunder Cloud's closest friend, said he prayed each night in Catawba.
Thunder Cloud left no known survivors. Ms. Pena said that Thunder Cloud had a sister but that they had lost track of each other many years ago.