It’s hard to say whether the younger or the older students were sharper at the Ninth Annual Oklahoma Native American Youth and Language Fair on April 4-5. All age groups, elementary, high school, junior high and pre-K, showed up at the two-day event ready to rumble.
At stake was bragging rights for the first place trophies and the chance to strut their cultural stuff. Some groups were old hands at the fair while others were first timers. They showed up in traditional dress or matching T-shirts carrying props, drums or stickball sticks. Herded by teachers and parents, students split off into their categories including spoken languages (group and individual) song, book, poster and video, among others.
The event, which is billed by University of Oklahoma officials as the largest Native American youth language fair in the country, drew more than 650 students from 27 tribes speaking 23 Indian languages. Some came from out-of-state tribes, like the Poarch Band of Creeks Indians in Alabama and the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana for the chance to compete. And they mixed in seamlessly with home-based groups from the Kiowa, Otoe, Cheyenne, Ponca , Comanche, Wichita and Osage tribes.
But the path to Norman was planned long before the event.
At Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, practice had been an ongoing thing. A 20-plus group of students from Mississippi Choctaw met over pizza and soda to practice dances and songs from their reservation. At the Euchee Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, about 24 kids practiced in the Euchee House or in the local park. In Ada, Oklahoma, the Chickasaw home-schooled Shackleford family (three girls and one boy) had been writing and going over their skits in between their daily chores.
Most of the Mississippi Choctaw students are fluent speakers. Their version of Choctaw is a little different from the Oklahoma brand, the students said. They quickly noticed that Choctaw sounds a lot like Chickasaw.
“We speak faster,” said Riverside sophomore Dakota Wallace. “I don’t know why.”
They practiced social, animal and war dance songs in a full dress rehearsal the week before the event.
“Those that don’t know all the steps or the words will show the others along,” Wallace said.
Euchee is a separate language, although the tribe is affiliated with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Yoney Spencer, language coordinator, said the kids wrote their own books for the fair and practiced placement and words for months for their parts.
“We tend to build our presentations off what the kids know already,” he said. “Our kids love to sing and in language learning, it’s easier to put a tune to a learning lesson.”
They were all judged by a host of performance judges from both the Southern Plains and Five Civilized Tribes. Dance was incorporated into a song category this year with judges cued for language and delivery rather than the dancing because language is the event’s focus, organizers said.
Event coordinator Mary Linn said the event also boasted more language masters than in years past. Language masters are those who grew up speaking a tribal language in the home as opposed to learning it in class. In the earlier years of the fair, their numbers were scant.
The first day drew little language speakers who either sailed through their pieces or forgot their lines. In this grouping, Cherokee Nation’s Immersion groups showed strong in all categories. The Euchee Language Project Group, dressed in matching green T-shirts, made a respectable showing but did not place in the third to fifth grade Large Group Song category that registered six groups.
On the second day, the Mississippi Choctaw Dancers placed third in the ninth to 12th grade Large Group category competing with Muscogee Creek, White Mountain Apache, and Pueblo and Wichita groups. Senior Alex McMillan said he was surprised by the large turnout. His group showed up in Mississippi Choctaw clothes complete with straw baskets, hats, stickball sticks and drum.
“If we had a bigger stage...” he said. “Everyone was nervous, but we got used to it and then just did our thing.”
The Shacklefords also did well on the second day, dressed in Chickasaw traditional regalia, placing second, third in the advocacy and poster contest, and ranking first in a video category. All four siblings won first in the high school spoken language group.
“I wasn’t too nervous,” said Brooke Shackleford. “I’m having fun.”
The fair coincided with OU’s April as Native American Heritage Month, said one emcee, Lindy Waters.
“It (Heritage month) used to be one week,” he said. “But now we expanded it to almost six weeks and it’s still expanding.”
The event was sponsored by The Boeing Company and the Cyril Fund. Tribal sponsor for this year’s fair was the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Fair supporters included the University of Oklahoma American Indian Student Life, Department of Anthropology, Department of History and University Silkscreen, officials said.