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Maintaining identity

NORMAN, Okla. - Rare are the opportunities to hear young Native people speak and sing in their traditional languages in Oklahoma. But when these Native students in grades pre-K through 12 can come under one roof, speaking and singing in languages as diverse as Creek, Choctaw, Kiowa, Cherokee, Comanche, Otoe or Apache, it is a wonderful experience for all involved.

Beginning in 2002, with the Indigenous Language Institute of Santa Fe, N.M., serving as a model, the University of Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair expected only 80 participants in individual and group speech and song categories. Instead, more than 200 participated in the inaugural event. This year on March 31 and April 1, the seventh annual event grew to include 1,055 pre-registered students and teachers.

"I really didn't want to do static exhibits of languages, especially ones that implied that languages were just objects on a shelf or that they were to be preserved and not spoken," said Mary Linn, curator of Native American languages at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on the OU campus, about forming the annual event. "I really wanted to concentrate on languages as being living and being a vital part of the communities in Oklahoma."

With a steering committee of American Indian language instructors from OU and Native language programs across the state, Linn said the language fair has received wide support from tribal leaders and directors of Native language programs. Linn also gave credit to departments and programs on the OU campus such as Native American studies, anthropology, Native American Students Services and the OU Indian student body.

The current format of the event features one day devoted to pre-K to fifth-grade students and then another day dedicated to middle school and high school students. Each age group has both individual and group categories. Individual competitions can be either in traditional song or in spoken word, while group competitions - taking place on a larger stage - are also in either spoken word or group song and dance. For those who have a high level of language skills, there is also a master's category. All competitions are in front of a panel of judges, awarding first-, second- and third-place prizes.

With the event growing by 200 - 400 students each year, possible future plans for the event include having a Saturday program to specifically accommodate language programs run by tribes and tribal communities.

Working in the Yuchi tribal community since 1994, Linn is one of many who not only see the decline of Native language use in Oklahoma, but who also want to see Native language retained by younger generations.

"I feel it is of utmost importance. I know that cultural institutions can go on when things have to shift to English," said Linn, who is also an associate professor of anthropology and adjunct professor of Native American studies at OU. "We see that in some tribes, and they're still able to pass on much of their culture. However, as a linguist and as a human being participating in some cultures that have invited me in more closely, I feel that it is the most appropriate way to pass down how you feel about things - to be able to talk with your grandmother if your grandmother or grandfather speaks that language, another language other than English. To me, it is both on a personal level, it is extremely important, and on a community level extremely important in being able to really pass on traditions and beliefs and in creating and maintaining a really strong Indian identity."

Linn has also seen the benefits of how young students who are knowledgeable of their Native language and culture succeed better in school, giving examples of bilingual indigenous language programs such as those in Hawaii and the Cree language education programs in Canada.

"If you look at the students who feel good about themselves, part of that is speaking their Native languages - knowing clearly who they are when they enter the public schools and keeping that identity," Linn said. "They're the students who do better in schools."

With the number of fluent Native language speakers in Oklahoma declining each year at an alarming rate, there are increasing efforts by both tribes and Native language educators to have more Native language education in the public schools. Linn said that although there is wording in Oklahoma law for "language awareness" in the early grades, many Native language programs do not get full funding until it is taught on the high school level. Linn said that one of these problems in public education is due to federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which requires all teachers to be certified.

"One of the ways that hurt Native language education is that it does not allow for non-certified teachers, and most Native language teachers are elders," Linn said. "They can be younger people, but they may not have a teaching certificate. These were supposed to be completely phased out. Public schools got very worried that they would lose federal funding if they had, technically, non-qualified teachers in their schools. No Child Left Behind really dampened Native language education in the state."

Another potential problem with Native language education in Oklahoma is a move by Oklahoma legislators to take "English only" to a statewide referendum. The measure recently passed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and is awaiting a vote in the Oklahoma Senate. Although the wording of the measure makes exemption for Native languages as well as Braille and sign language, many tribes and Native language educators are still opposed to the measure.

"It's very clear they want to take away all bilingual education funding," Linn said. "They have caveats on there that this does not apply to Native languages because for one thing, they have to. There's federal law - the Native American Language Act of 1990. They know it will get shot down constitutionally if they do not put that on there. If there is no funding for bilingual education in the state, there can never be any possibility for tribes to tap into any bit of money in order to have bilingual education programs or for furthering Native language education in the public schools.

"The worst thing about it is it is an outward negative statement against other languages, and that includes Indian languages. It basically makes it where English is the only language, it's the best language. That kind of attitude in the state is detrimental to anyone speaking and learning their Native language."