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The Long War of Words
For generations, Native Americans’ spoken languages have been systematically dismantled and discouraged. Now, Oklahoma tribes are marshaling their resources to save the tongues with which their ancestors prayed, joked, told stories, and defined their cultures.
By David Joshua Jennings
Published January/February 2017
I rarely go an hour without my mind returning to the Yuchi class,” Maxine Wildcat Barnett says on a drive through rural Creek County in eastern Oklahoma. “I keep the language and our Yuchi people in my prayers every day.”
Yuchi was Barnett’s first language, the only one her parents spoke. It wasn’t until she was six, when she began public school, that she learned English. As she grew to adulthood in an English-speaking world, however, her familiarity with Yuchi began to fade. Only later in life did she realize the importance of keeping her language alive.
“I was at a conference in Nebraska with about 1,500 women from all over the country,” she says. “The leader said, ‘When I look out over this congregation, I see many colors and types of people. I want one person from each group to lead us in prayer in their own language.’ I was with a group of Creek women, so I felt safe and secure, because surely one of them could pray in Creek. But nobody said a word.”
She looks out the window at the flat yellow countryside surrounding Sapulpa and is silent for a moment.
“That night, something hit me,” says the ninety-one year old. “I wanted to cry out. I promised the Lord, ‘When I get home, I’m going to learn how to praise you in my own language, because you made me who I am, you gave me Yuchi-speaking parents, and I can’t even call out to you in prayer.’ And from then on, I prayed in Yuchi. It feels like God is holding me. That’s why it’s so hard for me to give up the language. When you lose a language, you lose your songs, your culture, the things you used to do together as a family. My language keeps me going.”
As one of three living elders who learned to speak Yuchi as a first language, Barnett is integral to the Yuchi Tribe of Indians’ language revitalization program, and she is determined to spend her remaining years passing her skills to the next generation.
It is this determination that has inspired a group of students to gather around Barnett and the tribe’s two other first-language elders, Vada Tiger Nichwander, who is ninety-five, and Martha Wildcat Squire, who is ninety-two, in the living room of a small country home in the middle of summer break. For the students and their coordinator, Richard Grounds, executive director of the Yuchi Language Project in Sapulpa, these women and their words are precious. Each time they utter an uncommon word, there is a real possibility that it will be the final time. When they are gone, there will be few books to consult and few other sources of information for those who wish to learn.
Grounds and his students are there to make sure that doesn’t happen. The goal of the Yuchi Language Project is to spread fluency among young members of the tribe, who eventually will pass their fluency on to future generations. The odds, however, are not in their favor. According to the Endangered Languages Catalog published by the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in 2012, a language goes extinct roughly every three months, and many linguists predict that 50 percent of the remaining 6,500 or so languages in the world will be extinct by the end of this century. In Oklahoma, at least seventeen Native American languages already have gone extinct, and of the twenty-two remaining, only four have more than 1,000 fluent speakers, and six have fewer than ten fluent speakers. With the exception of Cherokee, all Oklahoma Native American languages soon could cease to exist as spoken tongues.
Language shapes everything human beings experience. It contains history and connects people through the millennia to their ancestors. So what exactly dies with a language? What, besides words, is lost?
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Get There: The Yuchi Tribe of Indians offers classes for parents and interested community members. (918) 224-7017 or yuchilanguage.org. The Sac and Fox Nation has Sauk language resources online at talksauk.com. The Cherokee Nation offers online language classes. (918) 968-0070 or cherokee.org.