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Tribal tongue

Oklahoma tribes are preserving Native American languages through technology.

James S. Tyree October 26th, 2011

Osage is making a comeback.

So are dozens of other American Indian languages that were in danger of disappearing, thanks to expanding education programs among some Indian nations and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.

“If we want to continue on with our unique sovereignty, then our language is a part of that,” said Justin Neely, director of language for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Shawnee.

Some of the biggest news in language preservation comes from the Osage Nation. The tribe’s language class enrollment has increased more than 20-fold in seven years, while a major project is under way at the Sam Noble museum to digitize documents and process recordings.

right, A close-up of an old Cherokee ledger.

The museum has materials from 72 American Indian languages, almost all of which are considered “critically endangered” or have no speakers at all.

Much of the Osage materials are manuscripts and other research items from the estate of Carolyn Quintero, a non-Indian Oklahoma native who died in 2008 after spending decades studying Osage and translating it into English.

Nicholas Wojcik, archivist and collections manager for the museum’s Native American languages division, said digitizing the Quintero Collection — and preserving the original materials — started about one year ago and has a long way to go because of its sheer size.

“We had found out about it and really wanted to get our hands on those materials,” said Veronica Pipestem, teacher and curriculum director at the Osage Nation Language Department in Pawhuska. “So we approached Sam Noble to say we’ll help digitize the audio and text and whatever else is in that collection, so we can have access to it, too.”

Billy Proctor, the Osage language department’s principal teacher, said the nation also is fortunate to have recordings of language classes dating back to the 1950s and written material from the 1800s.

Strength in numbers
Osage teachers plan to use all those materials to help increase the number of people who can read, speak and comprehend the language of their ancestors.

Proctor said Herman Lookout was alone 40 years ago in teaching the Osage language; now Lookout directs the tribe’s language education department that has grown to 421 students.

Some students — Proctor, Pipestem and others — have become teachers, which has allowed Osage language classes to spread out in Osage County, as well as online and through videoconferencing.

“When the program started, there were about 20 students total,” Proctor said. “There were two classes: advanced and beginner. That was it. Now we’re into Pawhuska High School, Skiatook High School, Head Start, various communities and employee classes.”

Teachers spend time, particularly during the summer, compiling Osage language materials and researching them for future instruction. They also organize occasional language immersion events throughout the year, during which students only speak to each other in Osage.

“It’s kind of an addiction, you could say,” Pipestem said. “I guess we love it. It’s something that’s precious to us and something that we do not only at work, but also in our spare time.”

During the summer, Wojcik spent time archiving materials given to the museum by the Sac and Fox Nation. The donation ranged from compact discs and DVDs, to bookmarks and conversation guidebooks. It even included the children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See” translated into Sauk, the Sac and Fox Nation’s traditional language.

Wojcik and program assistants occasionally welcome high school groups interested in learning more about Muskogee languages. The visits provide a break from the department’s massive, ongoing work of digitizing and preserving American Indian language materials.

“We have people coming in from out of state who are interested in what we are doing,” he said. “That kind of emphasizes the scale and scope of what’s going on here, how important it is, and the fact that people from outside of Oklahoma would recognize that.”

In addition, the department maintains a collection database on the museum’s website, but Wojcik said an overhaul is being planned to give online visitors more information for any particular item.

right, Nicholas Wojcik of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History digitizes audio

“You’ll be able to identify a particular item according to the locality of the language … who gave it to us, who was responsible for digitizing, even what kind of camera was used for digitizing,” he said. “We need to be adding a lot more. That way any question that’s asked can be completely answered. Dates, names — everything will be covered.”

Local nations also are working to make better use of technology. Neely said the Internet helps engage children in the language.

“When I started there was very little material available, but today there is audio, there are video-equipped actual classes, there are songs online and stories and grammatical content,” he said. “I think the No. 1 thing for us is trying to make the language accessible to all tribal members.”

Living the language
Neely said seven bands of Potawatomi exist in the United States and two in Canada, out of which there are only about 10 first-language and 40 second-language speakers.

“First-language speakers” are those who learned the tribe’s language before anything else. Very few firstlanguage speakers remain because of boarding schools and other assimilation measures in the early 20th century aimed at establishing English from an early age.

“And then you have another category,” Proctor said. “Their parents spoke it and they can understand it, but they can’t speak it as well as they wanted to. And then the rest are students of the language, you might say.”

The definition of “second-language fluency” can vary from band to band, although Neely’s is simple: “If I can have a conversation with someone and we can engage back and forth in Potawatomi, then he’s a speaker in my mind.”

Neely’s department is working to develop more speakers by offering a variety of classes, from self-paced distance learning to traditional classroom courses to live video streaming.

He hopes that expanded use of technology, coupled with immersion camps, can help students incorporate a once-dying language into everyday life.

“You can’t take a language and put it in a safe and lock it up and think it’s going to be OK, or put it in a book and set that on a shelf,” Neely said. “It needs to breathe; it needs to live.”

Photos by James S. Tyree

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