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Conversation with author Elizabeth Seay

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Elizabeth Seay's new book "Searching for Lost City: On the Trail of America's Native Languages" (The Lyons Press) documents her journey from growing up in the white culture of Oklahoma to her philosophical transformation that resulted from her study of Native languages and the programs to preserve them. The book explores the problems of keeping Native languages alive (more than 100 Native tongues are currently endangered) and shows what is lost if the languages are forgotten.

Seay, a longtime writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal, also shows how the story of Native language, from its transformation when it came in contact with white culture, the attempt to kill it off by forbidding Native children from speaking it in the boarding schools, and the renewed interest over the last decade in keeping the languages alive is a microcosmic history of the Native people. Along the way she went down some avenues that are linguistically unique to Native American languages, such as interviewing Charles Chibitty, the last Comanche code talker, and Brian and Quese Frejo, who use Native language in their rap music.

Seay started going to language classes when she began the project, but she wasn't sure the classes were the answer. "There are two things you always hear about," Seay said. "There is always this little, brief article in the paper where a tribal elder has died and there's only one speaker left of their Native language; I wanted to investigate that a little more. The other thing was that I was going through a lot of classes, but they didn't leave me hopeful. I know how long it takes for me to learn a language and I'm not sure I can learn it in a weekly class; it's hard to tell how much is really coming out of that. I started to shift my focus when I went to Lost City, in northeastern Oklahoma, where a whole community of people who still spoke their own language in their daily lives. I started looking for communities where the Native language is still spoken, and I think that's where most of the hope lies, that's why I use the term 'Lost City' in the title, it's a vision, an ideal, and a metaphor for me." The author also pointed out that she hesitated using the word "lost" in the title; she didn't want people to think she was "discovering" something in the style of Columbus.

Seay's journey began when she was looking for a topic to write about and surfed the web. She came about an article about a group that wanted to make a Choctaw soap opera. "The linguist doing this is Alice Anderton, who works for Intertribal Wordpath Society, which is based in Norman," Seay said. "She's like a consultant who helps tribes to preserve their language, and they also promote the issue in Oklahoma. She brings people together from different tribes, and they work with each other; if somebody has a successful project, somebody else can lean from it. I decided to write an article about that, but as I began looking into it I hadn't realized how many languages, over two dozen, were being spoken in Oklahoma. I also hadn't realized that it used to be, depending on how you define it, 300, 600 Native languages spoken in North America, and I hadn't realized how different they were from each other. There are three language families in Europe, but there are more than 50 families in Native American languages. So there was this linguistic diversity that I didn't know about and I found a new way of looking at Oklahoma myself, which is what kept the project going. I started thinking 'this isn't one article, it's two articles,' and I started contacting different people and collecting information."

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Seay pointed out an incident that showed her an important difference between Native languages. "A Kiowa man was telling me about how in Kiowa there is a term for your second cousin; you have a term for things that we are always struggling for, like what that cousin's relationship is to us. The names for these relatives reflect an importance placed on family within Native culture. One man told me that when he requested a day off to go to a funeral he had to explain that the deceased was actually his grandfather's brother, in English. They didn't let him take the day off; they asked him 'How many grandfathers do you have?' They were suspicious of him, but the man said, 'That's a grandfather, to me, in Kiowa.' It reflected a real relationship, a real connection in the language that makes the whole world more harmonious. Native Americans lose that if they lose that connection to the language."

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