The Colorado River Indian Tribes have announced Tribal Council Member Johnny Hill Jr. died April 15.
The following statement was published on the Tribes’ “Manataba Messenger” Facebook page:
“CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores and members of the Tribal Council are sad to report that long-serving Tribal Council Member Johnny Hill, Jr. has died. CRIT extends its deepest sympathies to Johnny Hill’s family and friends. The Tribal Council shares in their grief and mourns the loss of this beloved member of our community. May he rest in peace.”
Hill was one of a small number of people who was fluent in the Chemehuevi language. He had worked with people from the University of Arizona to record and preserve the language.
Hill was first elected to the Tribal Council in December 2008. It was a difficult time for CRIT as there were a lot of members who were not happy with the Tribal leadership. Among the concerns were that Tribal leaders weren’t forthcoming about the Tribes’ finances, and members were unhappy about taxes on Tribal members’ businesses. Only one incumbent was returned to office at Tribal election that year.
Before he became a Tribal Council member, Hill became known for being fluent in the Chemehuevi language. This is one of many languages in the world that linguists say is slowly fading away. Linguists say this is particularly sad for those languages that are oral only, as people will lose touch with their heritage.
Hill was taught the Chemehuevi language by his grandmother, Mary S. Hill. She raised him since he was an infant. When she died, Hill came to understand the Chemehuevi language was a part of her she left to him.
In the mid-2000s, Hill made a video where he spoke of his growing up in English and Chemehuevi. He gave it to Susan Penfield of the English Department of the University of Arizona. She was working on a project to record and preserve native languages that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through grants to tribal libraries.
When Hill was selected to participate in this project, Penfield presented him with a Dell laptop computer to use in the project. She noted this was his first real exposure to working with a computer.
Hill admitted he had some trouble with the computer at first. However, he told himself that, if he could learn to handle heavy equipment for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he could learn to handle a computer.
Hill was featured in the 2008 documentary, “The Linguists,” which was produced by Ironwood Films for PBS. He was interviewed by linguists David Garrett and Greg Anderson. The film was featured at the Sundance Film Festival that year. Hill received a standing ovation when he was introduced to the audience.
His knowledge of the Chemehuevi language was also featured in an article, “Vanishing Voices” in the July 2012 National Geographic.
Hill often spoke of the need to remember the native languages and old stories as a way of keeping in touch with one’s heritage.