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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
Funding for Native language preservation initiatives is sporadic at best, and those involved with the programs agree it is not enough simply to keep the languages alive. In addition to funding issues, the biggest challenges facing language education include recruitment and retention—finding young people willing to spend thousands of hours immersed in the language—the lack of teachers fluent in tribal languages, a lack of language textbooks, and finding a methodology that is effective for each tribe’s unique cultural context.
“It’s a big challenge to keep up the students’ morale, engagement, and interest,” says Grounds. “One of the most critical factors is having young people who understand the value of learning the language and who have the motivation necessary to overcome the inertia around the language issue, which is the result of many generations of colonial assault on our communities.”
Even for a program as extensive as the Cherokees’, a crisis of identity for second-language speakers is hindering speech in a public setting.
“We have this group of first language speakers,” says Boney. “And this other group of second language speakers, who don’t want to say that they are Cherokee speakers, because there is this social cachet for first-language speakers that the new speakers don’t have, so they are hesitant to identify as speakers.”
In terms of everyday encounters, there are not many opportunities for Cherokee students to speak the language. Cherokee isn’t used the way it once was in the community—it’s now mostly taught in a formal school setting. At home, there aren’t many spaces for students to use what they learn.
“It’s a fast world, and people don’t have time to sit around and talk in Cherokee like we did when I was a kid,” says Thompson. “Nowadays, it seems like even the native speakers don’t speak much Cherokee any more—it’s just so much easier to speak in English. And a lot of people don’t teach Cherokee to their kids because they say, ‘This is a white world, and learning Cherokee isn’t going to get you a job.’ That’s what a lot of families tell their kids.”
Highlighting challenges like these, language preservationists agree that Oklahoma’s native languages are passing through a crucible that few will survive unless immediate and sustained long-term actions, backed by adequate funding, are taken. Language programs are on the front lines of this long war.
“When a language dies, the loss to a tribal community—and the world—is beyond measure,” wrote the Sac and Fox tribe’s Jacob Manatowa-Bailey on culturalsurvival.org, an online portal advocating for indigenous people’s rights. “Entire systems of thought, belief, and practice become permanently removed from the storehouse of human knowledge. . . . When you remove a people from their language, you cut out the heart of their identity.”
It is this identity that language preservationists like those in the Cherokee, Yuchi, and Sac and Fox nations are working so hard to secure.
“Prior to colonization and language loss, communication, songs, prayers, and stories were all done in the language,” says Manatowa-Bailey. “When you don’t have a language, those things either have to happen in translation, or they stop altogether. That it’s become less pure is not something I buy into. Can people learn to do things in another language? Yeah, they can. Does it affect your identity? Yeah, it does. It affects your sense of self.”
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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.