NORMAN, Okla. – They came from the east side of Oklahoma to the west side – and then some.
More than 800 students from pre-K to 12th grade spent two days at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History for the 7th Annual Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, “Giving the Gift of Language,” held April 6 – 7.
Students competed at the University of Oklahoma museum to show who had the best handle on tribal languages. With more than 37 federally recognized tribes, Oklahoma is a natural place for such an event, organizers said.
“I’m a Cheyenne and I’m from Colony, I don’t speak my own language. … I wish I did,” – Darrell Flyingman, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho governor
“Of the tribes in Oklahoma, 17 of them have no fluent speakers left,” said Mary Linn, associate curator for Native American Languages at OU. “This event shows a renaissance of tribal languages, unlike their parents’ or grandparents’ time when they were discouraged from speaking their tribal languages.”
Not only has the event grown from the first year when 200 students registered, but the language fair drew groups from Idaho, Arizona and South Dakota. A Wyandotte viewer from Quebec, Canada, traveled to take in the program’s format so a similar fair among the First Nations could be organized, Linn said.
Students were divided into groups where they could sing, dance or recite pieces in their tribal language, according to their size. The event also offered a poster, book and video contest which had tallied the most entries since the event began.
Tribal leaders also attended the event, including Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Gov. Darrell Flyingman who was gratified to see tribal children take part in an eventpromoting culture.
“I’m a Cheyenne and I’m from Colony, I don’t speak my own language. … I wish I did,” he said during his keynote address. Flyingman, who was raised by his Cheyenne grandparents did not learn the language at home, he has since learned his tribe’s cultural ways. “I asked them (grandparents) why and they said, ‘it was going to be a white man’s world and I would be prepared.’”
Organizers knew they had a winning cause and growing event, but were lucky to draw the attention of a major sponsor, Boeing, which has a nearby center in Oklahoma City. Mark Anderson, senior manager for Boeing’s quality assurance, said backing the event was part of the company‘s desire to get involved locally.
“If you want to set a tone in a tribe, get involved with the kids first.”
Student groups that attended included the Chickasaw Nation, Cherokee Nation, Kiowa Tribe, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Euchee, Comanche Nation, Osage Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, among others. Judges came from the Choctaw, Creek, Comanche, Osage, Kiowa, Absentee Shawnee and Cherokee tribes.
The event also beckoned to students who attend in-state BIA boarding schools. A four-member Shoshone-Bannock group from Fort Hall, Idaho competed in the small group music/dance category. They attend Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Okla.
Forrest Broncho, 15, introduced his group with a somber message. “I can’t speak my language because it’s dying out. We’re all descendants of the last fluent Bannock speakers.”
Others who competed in the two-day event practiced regularly to be in top form. Among them was Anevay Greenwood of Edmond, Okla. The 9-year-old won two trophies for her Otoe language song and recitation. Getting the hardware was easier after four years of competing, but keeping her concentration was something else.
“When I get nervous if I have a loose tooth I usually wiggle it.”
Kandanice Sadongei, 12, said preparing for the language fair meant more than just reciting.
“I was so nervous for this, I was sick for two days before I calmed down. Next year, I’m trying for the (Kiowa) birthday song.”
For those who taught the children the language, growing up with it was key.
“If you grew up with the hymns, like I did, it’s easier to teach them,” said Pat Koomsa, Kiowa language coach. “I’m so proud of them.”
Linn said the fair featured entrants who spoke 22 tribal languages.