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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
Does it matter that an obscure language spoken by a few people in rural Oklahoma ceases to exist, and is it worth it, or even possible, to keep these languages alive? What is in a language that makes it worth preserving?
“It makes us stand out,” says Sue Thompson of Tahlequah, a Cherokee who has taught her native language for twenty-five years. “If we were to lose Cherokee, we would lose our humor, and our stories wouldn’t have the same power. We would lose all sorts of medicines. Words are everything. If we didn’t have those words, it would be a dull world for us Cherokees.”
Words have enormous power to convey the unique perspective of the cultures that brought them into being. What does it say about Cherokees, for instance, that they have no word for goodbye, only see you later?
“When you lose language, you lose a part of your culture,” says Kinsey. “You lose a connection with your ancestors, because that’s how they spoke and how the world made sense to them. Culture and language are two halves of a whole. So if you lose your language, you are not whole—you lose that part of you that makes you a Native American.”
To avert this fate, many tribes have taken action. From the time the language crisis was recognized until now has been a blip on the timeline of these languages, so it is hard to measure success. But some tribes—like the Sac and Fox, Yuchi, and Cherokee—are making concentrated efforts. Success for such programs, however, cannot be measured in a few years—or even a few lifetimes.
“You have to start talking in terms of a couple of centuries,” says Jacob Manatowa-Bailey, director of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma’s Sauk language department. “Not a three- or ten-year plan, but a 200- to 300-year plan.”
Regardless how many native languages are taught in universities, public schools, or community centers, immersion and total fluency among numerous individuals is the only way to keep a language alive. “Immersion is the heart of bringing new speakers into the language,” Manatowa-Bailey says. “Without immersion, you cannot create new fluent speakers, and fluency is the determining factor in language survival.”
It is a battle that must proceed step by step, and the first step is getting young people motivated to learn. This is why the Yuchi tribe organizes programs like the Annual Yuchi Knowledge Bowl, where kids get medals, their picture in the paper, and respect from the community for their knowledge of Yuchi.
“We want them to be recognized and honored for learning their language,” says Grounds. “Racism and bias still exist, so programs like this are aimed at making kids feel good about themselves and their heritage.”
The Cherokee, meanwhile, have been actively introducing their language and syllabary into Google, Microsoft Windows, Facebook, and other software programs.
“Reaching the younger generation has been a challenge,” says Boney. “That’s why the technology aspect—being able to text in Cherokee, for example—is very important. Then they at least have the option to use it. It’s important not only for maintaining their heritage but for communicating with their peers.”
Students in the Sauk Multimedia Technology Language pilot program have been increasing their twenty-first century technology competence alongside their language skills through web design and multimedia classes. During this year’s annual powwow, for example, students recorded interviews with powwow dancers and singers in Sauk. But all these programs, and the success of any language revitalization effort, have one essential need.
“What you’re able to do depends on the amount of money you have,” says Grounds. “The boarding schools were like a battering ram used to pummel our language communities for generations in a very ugly and brutal way. They were very well funded. If we spent as much money today as they did to get rid of Native languages, we’d have the funds we need to bring the next generations on board.”
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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.