Skip to main content

Oneida language is on the move

ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. -- Early on a wintry Monday, an Oneida
classroom is filled with chirping voices and the smell of coffee. The
morning's class is arriving. Eight women chat against the room's
drawing-peppered walls while overhead, clock faces show the hours of the
day in Oneida and over one woman's shoulder a sun and cloud demonstrate
types of weather.

Sunny Shenandoah teaches today's lesson, although the women take turns
leading the class. She asks a question in Oneida, pointing to drawings
taped to a whiteboard behind her. The other women answer, giggling and
correcting each other's mistakes.

Almost two years into the Oneida Nation's newest language initiative,
classes have an easy, homey feel. Over coffee and chatter it's easy to
forget that the program is one of the nation's most innovative efforts at
reviving a dying Native language. Shenandoah's class is built on an
immersion framework developed by Berlitz International, a well-known
language education company.

Following the lead of the Lakota Nation, the Oneidas are only the second
Indian community to contract with Berlitz. They got the idea to find an
immersion program by visiting a Mohawk program, said Sheri Beglen, an
advanced member of the class and an experienced Oneida teacher. The Mohawks
were already using immersion (though not through a contracted company), and
Beglen said that seeing it in action was an enlightening experience.

"It was amazing to see little [Mohawk] kids walking around speaking their
language," she said. Such a thing did not exist at the Oneida Nation.

Shenandoah said that before this initiative began, there were only two
families in the region who spoke any Oneida natively. Attempts to teach the
language to non-Native speakers were failing.

Deniz Ghrewati, a Berlitz instructor and spokesman, said that creating a
comfort level in teachers is an essential part of the Berlitz program, what
she calls the "direct method." Before Berlitz, teachers with only minimal
knowledge of the language were instructing others.

"Our goal was to get them thinking in the language," she said. "By the end
[of the first class] they were laughing and joking in Oneida. It was very

Since their initial 25-week Oneida immersion course, the teachers'
education continues in classes like Shenandoah's, which perpetuate this
comfort and ease.

Designing a program that led to this stage of immersion was no small feat,
however, because the Berlitz method relies heavily on using "native-fluent"
instructors. When dealing with a language spoken by only several hundred
people on the North American continent, this isn't easy.

Berlitz took revolutionary steps to find native Oneida speakers, said
Ghrewati. It contacted a group of Oneidas living in the Thames River region
of Canada, where Oneida is more commonly spoken, and flew two speakers to
central New York to start the course.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Before starting to teach, the two Thames Oneidas were coached extensively
in the direct method of teaching. The instruction consists of listening and
repetition, along with visual cues, like the ones Shenandoah uses in class.

Ray George is one of the Thames Oneidas who began the central New York
course. George has remained in New York to assist with the classes as the
teachers become more and more fluent. He supports the women when they make
mistakes, said Beglen.

George said that the New York Oneidas, while new to the language, are
making strides that surpass even other native-speaking Oneida groups.

"Overall, in the language being learned in the three Oneida groups, they
are doing the best," he said. The New Yorkers are also some of the only
Oneidas learning to read and write the language.

Shenandoah said that the work with Berlitz has been exciting and personally

"I just heard about this program and knew right away it's what I wanted to
do," she said. "I feel really proud of myself."

Last summer, the Berlitz-revived Oneida language reached young Oneidas for
the first time through several pilot programs. Shenandoah said that getting
the language to kids early is the most effective way to create real fluency
in the community.

"I'd really like to get it into schools," she said.

The Stockbridge Valley Central School District, in Stockbridge Valley,
N.Y., is just seven miles south of the Oneida Nation. Ten percent of the
district's students are Oneida, said Superintendent Randy Richards. The
district incorporates many aspects of the Oneida culture into the
curriculum, he said, but so far it has been unable to integrate an Oneida
language class into the schools.

With the newfound success of the Oneida language program, that may all
change. Richards said he would be very interested in employing a fluent
Oneida speaker to teach children the language.

Having finished their work, the women wrap up the day's lesson. They swing
on their coats and purses, still discussing the verb "to go" as they
chatter out the door. It's an appropriate verb, considering the dynamic
nature of the Oneidas' new language plans.

The program is going places, and fast.