Tribal tongue 

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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