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Reunion brings languages together

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LAWTON, Okla. – Western tribes, unified by a similar language, traveled hundreds of miles to visit their sister tribe, the Comanche Nation, during the 10th Annual Shoshone Language Reunion in September.

The event, “Many Trails, One Purpose; Survival of the People,” heralded the start of the 2009 18th Annual Comanche Nation Fair Sept. 25 – 27. The intertribal event showcased the language and paid tribute to a time when all bands lived as one before the Comanche migrated to its present-day location in southwest Oklahoma.

The goal of the language reunion is to mingle language, share knowledge and pass on culture with a firm foundation in the oral tradition, said program coordinator, Susan Nahwooksy. Around 400 people from Eastern Shoshone, Wind River Indian Reservation, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Western Shoshone and Shoshone Bannock attended.

“A lot of this is not what we read, but what we hear,” she said. “This is about, ‘We say this one way, how do you say it?’”

A shared story recounts when Shoshone-speaking bands lived in a group so large that it could not be spanned by foot in one day. The arrival of a mysterious and deadly illness not curable by the medicine men led the bands to split up so some of them could survive.

As a result, Comanches live in Oklahoma; Shoshones in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada; Utes in Colorado and Utah; Havasupai in Utah; Mono in California; and Paiute in Nevada. Today, they are linked by linguistic ties to the Shoshone-Ute-Aztecan language family.

As this year’s host tribe, the Comanches laid out a three-day agenda that included a teepee contest, origin story panel, frybread contest, basket weaving and tribal games competition among all tribes.

Meanwhile, visiting tribes shared their culture with the Comanche attendees. Shoshone-Bannocks or Sho-Bans carried a cargo load of teepee poles to Oklahoma to demonstrate how the poles are made. Other presenters, like hunter-fisher Claudeo Broncho of Fort Hall, Idaho, explained his tribe’s salmon fishing techniques. This was his first visit south.

“It’s good to be here and it’s good to see my relatives, but I miss my mountains.”

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This year the number of visitors dropped a bit compared to past gatherings.

“The trip to Comanche Country is the farthest one to make for all the groups,” Nahwooksy said. “The economy has had an effect on the cost of gas, and traveling, in general.”

An added facet of this year’s event featured representatives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Fred Nahwooksy, NMAI senior adviser, said the museum’s community documentation project is intended to spur interest among tribes to document their own culture on a regular basis.

“We know that there is a certain cachet of the Smithsonian recording an event, but we want the tribes to say, ‘Hey we can do that.’ We see it as a service, but we also share back with them.”

A team from NMAI recorded language and cultural sessions on video. The museum group also took family portraits of those attending on the event’s first day. All documentation will be taken back to the museum with the possibility of ending up in museum exhibits, educational materials or media pieces developed by NMAI.

Past language reunions have been in Reno, Nev., Fort Hall, Idaho, Fort Washakie, Wyo., Elko, Nev. and Ely, Nev. Some gatherings have drawn close to 1,000 participants. One Comanche attendee, Billie Kreger of Cache, Okla., has attended all previous language reunions.

A Comanche speaker, she said the similarity between the languages is remarkable. The Comanche and Shoshone words for red, yellow and horse are nearly identical. Visitation between the tribal groups adds to the language preservation, she said.

“There’s a little bit of dialect difference that you notice, but they are very much alike. When you sit there and hear the languages spoken between them, you learn what sounds alike.”

During the three-day fair, visitors and hosts broke bread as Comanche families prepared and served meals. Social dancing and cultural presentations were also daily features.

Another event highlight was a youth presentation by tribal boxer, George “Comanche Boy,” Tadooahnippah, who spoke to children.