The state of Osage language preservation has reached a critical point and Osage Nation Chief, Geoffrey Standing Bear, just months after his inauguration, is making Osage language immersion a priority. The Chief’s plans include the continued collaboration of the Osage Nation Language Program with Dhegiha speakers, other relevant departmental resources, and the language immersion methods and instructors from other Dhegiha nations.
On February 26, the newly formed task force designed to address the language needs met with representatives from other Dhegiha language immersion efforts, including Alice Saunsoci, Umónhon (Omaha) language instructor at Nebraska Community College in Macy, Nebraska, her son Frank “Logan” Saunsoci, also an instructor, Michael Berger, a grant writer for the language immersion program at NCC, and Wyatt Thomas, Director of Native Studies at NCC.
The Dhegiha branch of the Siouan language family stock includes, Ponca, Kansa, Quapaw, Osage and Omaha. The Dhegiha people migrated southwest from the northeast Atlantic coast. Early settlements are evident in Virginia and the Carolinas. During the 1600s to1700s the Dhegiha people divided and some moved south branching out in different directions becoming the separate and distinct nations represented today. However, the Dhegiha nations still share a common language, some cultural customs, values, and stories.
The WahZhaZhi Cultural Center hosted a small traditional Osage style dinner for the Umónhon visitors on Wednesday. “[The meal] was just a small way to welcome them to our nation,” said Vann Bighorse, Director of the Cultural Center.
“Right now, it’s just a collaboration to strengthen our language. I think [the Umónhon] have a lot to offer because they still have speakers,” he added. Bighorse said the goal is to be able to teach conversational Osage language and filling in the blanks is where the other Dhegiha speakers can assist.
Bighorse said the Osage Nation Language Program first reached out to the Umónhon in 2006 and 2007 and since then the Language Program has played an integral part in reconnecting with other Dhegiha nations.
Standing Bear said Ponca and Umónhon language instructors will supplement the Nation’s language program.
Alice Saunsoci’s first language is Umónhon. She said she went to a boarding school as a child and was restricted from speaking her language but she and other children from other tribes could understand each other sometimes because they also spoke a Siouan language dialect. They found places to speak their languages in private. It was a stark difference from collaborative efforts happening today.
She said with confidence that the Osage Nation would have fluent speakers again through language immersion efforts, “it won’t be the same language spoken, you know, before, everything changes, but it will be Dhegiha.”
Language Loss by the Numbers
— 34.3 percent of the world’s languages are losing speakers
— 29.2 percent of people speak one of six languages
— 20 percent of those who speak American indigenous languages live in two counties (one in Arizona and one in New Mexico)
— 12.9 percent of the world’s languages are deemed “moribund” or worse by the website Ethnologue
— 11.7 percent of Native Americans age 5 to 17 speak their indigenous language at home, compared with 22.7 percent for Natives age 65 and older
— No counties in Nebraska and one county in Iowa (Tama) have more than 500 speakers of an indigenous language
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau 2006-10 American Community Survey and Ethnologue: Languages of the World
Geneva HorseChief-Hamilton represents the Osage Nation Communications Department.