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Language Preservationists in Oklahoma Scramble to Revive Endangered Tribal Tongues

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By the time Osage toddlers learn to speak, their first words are in English. It was not always this way, of course. Osages spoke the Dhegihan branch of the Siouan-based language when they first arrived on the southern plains in the late 1880s. More than a century later, the tribe finds itself without fluent speakers, and tribal language preservation officers are now working hard to bring about a rebirth of their ancestral tongue.

For their quest, they are using a linguistic map drafted by Carolyn Quintero, a non-Native who grew up in the Osages’ three-district home of Osage country in northeast Oklahoma. As the frequent house guest of Osage friends, she was fascinated by the language she often heard spoken in their homes. As an adult, she studied that language, and eventually developed an Osage (Wazhazhe) dictionary that was built on the work of linguists before her, said Dr. Mary Linn, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, and the associate curator of Native American Languages for the university’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH). Quintero’s dictionary used the works of both professional and nonprofessional linguists. These were scholars like Francis La Flesche in the 1900s and James Dorsy, whose work in the 1800s later went into the Smithsonian Institution. Quintero reviewed their field notes and built on them. She also used the work of Robert Bristow, an unofficial Osage linguist, who made scores of tapes, sketches and notes during Osage language classes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Linn says Osage language archives (including the Carolyn Quintero Collection) recently given to the University of Oklahoma were opened to the Osage, and SNOMNH, and collaborative archives were established to allow their resources to be used for the revival of several tribal languages. “There’s a lot of archival material here that was collected when there were fluent speakers,” Linn said. “They are like echoes back into a fluent time.”

In addition to Quintero’s dictionary, a cache of audio and written information is being transferred to a digital format that the Osage will use for their language archives. It includes Quintero’s field notes and her recordings of elders discussing grammar usage decades ago. With all this digital data from the Collaborative Archives, the tribe aims to develop a language curriculum to encourage new interest in the Osage tongue, tribal officials said.

Both Bristow and Quintero are deceased, but their efforts have become a first draft to the re-emergence of the Osage language. Lydia Cheshewalla, University of Oklahoma student and Osage Nation member, has spent hours scanning Quintero and Bristow’s paper documents in the SNOMNH archival library, but she is confident that all that drudgery will pay off some day. “While scanning documents for several hours a day may sound unglamorous, I know I’m helping to preserve the work and dedication that has been put into the Osage language and that gives me a great sense of accomplishment,” she says. “Knowing that this collection, once fully digitized, will be easily distributed among Osage tribal members makes me feel like I’m doing something good.”

The preservation of languages is a pressing issue all over Indian country. Even tribes with a strong core of fluent Native speakers, such as the Cherokee Nation, are on the endangered-language list because the majority of those speakers are elders who are slowly but steadily dying off. As recently as two years ago, 17 of Oklahoma’s 37 tribes had lost all their fluent members. This year, the number jumped to 22. “What we now have are Osages who are bilingual, but not necessarily fluent,” said Osage language preservationist Billy Proctor. “I know people who say, ‘I understood what my grandparents were saying, but I didn’t know how to answer them back. I can’t talk it.’?” He estimates that out of a total tribal population of more than 12,000, just a dozen Osage elders fit in this loose category of speakers who can understand the language better than they can speak it.

Defining fluency in a tribe can be a dicey chore. One linguist put it as the ability to form abstract thought in the language. Still others characterize fluency as when a speaker has developed the tribal language first and learns English second. By either definition, Linn said, “There’s not one fluent first-language elder speaking Osage.
“A tribal language is hinged on the life span of its youngest speaker,” she added. “If we don’t get more children speaking the languages, all the tribes will be in the same boat.”

Some tribes are storing up their languages, creating their own archives. The Euchee, Choctaw, Kiowa and Caddo have stored language lore for future generations at the SNOMNH. Written-language records, cassette tapes and family songs can be transferred to DVDs and CDs and stored on museum hard drives. The Osage tribe is also developing language-immersion programs within its Head Start programs. Tribal officials envision Osage toddlers getting an early introduction to their traditional tongue through Osage language primers and interaction with a native speaker—immersion programs fare better when fluent speakers interact with young people, said Osage curriculum coordinator-teacher Veronica Pipestem. Cyber language classes have also been added by the Osage Nation Language Department—putting language classes online makes them more accessible (both in and out-of-state tribal members can utilize the class), and tends to foster increased participation. Also, the Osages are introducing courses in their language to high school students in public schools near the reservation. “It’s a challenge every day to try and revitalize our language,” Pipestem said. “It’s very hard, especially when English is the predominant language.”

Dr. Richard Grounds of the Euchee Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma grew up listening to his grandmother speak Euchee, but it was not until he was formally educated, with an emphasis in language, that he was able to comprehend the language—and he is still learning. He said most of the Euchee elders who speak fluently (he estimates that there are only five left), are skeptical of his project. “Elders have a hard time conceptualizing revitalization because they have never seen it happen,” he said.

Some bright spots do exist. In Oklahoma, Indian languages qualify as “world” languages on state school credit requirements, which means that tribal language classes can be used as requirement credits rather than electives in secondary school. The hope is that this will spur interest in both non-Indian and Indian students. Proctor said, “I have to be honest, some kids are taking [Osage] because no other language is open and sometimes their parents are urging them to take it, but some kids are taking it because they want to.”

According to Intertribal Wordpath Society, at least five other Oklahoma tribes have language-revival programs. The Delaware, Kaw, Miami, Seneca and Wyandotte tribes have started to reconstruct tongues that have not spoken for years. The healthiest spoken Oklahoma languages are associated with the Cherokee Nation, which has an estimated 9,000 speakers, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, with about 6,000 speakers. Videll Yackeschi, a former language coordinator of the 14,000-member Comanche Nation in Lawton, Oklahoma, estimates that approximately 50 to 75 Comanche speakers are fluent. But, he said, there is a flicker of light. Dotted around the Comanche Nation jurisdiction, church and class groups sponsored by the tribe are meeting to learn Comanche. They host potluck suppers, share words and phrases then pass out Comanche language CDs. Hymns sung in church have all the grammatical components—like subject, verb and object—that are cornerstones to learning Comanche, according to Yackeschi. “It’ll take a long time before Comanche dies out because of those hymns,” he said. “It’s one of the best ways to spread our language.”

Persuading tribal members to learn their language takes a mix of strategies, tribal language officials say. In Stroud, Oklahoma, the Sac & Fox Nation’s language program entices tribal members to “talk Sauk,” and tribal language coordinators have put their slogan to work in a compelling 11-minute YouTube video entitled, “Let’s Come Together-Kimachipena,” which is narrated in Sauk and lists the many virtues of bringing back the Sauk language. One shot shows a young boy holding a sign that reads, "I only speak english because I can’t talk Sauk," and an elderly woman, whose sign reads, "I want my great-grandchildren to talk Sauk."

The video is dedicated to all Sauk speakers, past, present and future.