Cultural preservation group draws attention to disappearing languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Oct 25 12:28:35 UTC 2006

Losing the Native tongue
Cultural preservation group draws attention to disappearing languages

Sam Lewin 10/22/2006

Up until a few months ago there were six people still fluent in Euchee.
Then one died, dropping the number to five. The average age of the
speakers is currently 85, said Richard Grounds, the head of the Euchee
language program and a language preservation and anthropology professor at
the University of Tulsa. You try to raise the visibility of language by
connecting people-matching elders and youngsters, Grounds tells the Native
American Times. Grounds and several dozen other people attended the
Intertribal Wordpath Societys 9th annual celebration of languages spoken
by Oklahoma tribes.  The event, held Oct. 20th at the Cleveland County
Fairgrounds in Norman, comes with the stark knowledge that there are too
few speakers left and that languages once thriving are now in danger of
disappearing altogether.

Its already happened. According to the society, there are 13 Oklahoma
Indian languages that no longer have any fluent speakers in the state.
While a handful-including Wyandotte, Seneca and Cayuga- are still spoken
by people living in other areas and Canada, others-Delaware, Kaw, Tonkawa
and Modoc-are effectively dead. Those facts scare people like Grounds and
Alice Anderton, a linguist and former Comanche language instructor who
serves as the societys executive director. Anderton has her own theories
as to why languages once used by state Indian tribes are now disappearing
at an alarming rate. Anderton said tribes are very assimilated here
culturally. There are many tribes living in a small space and you have
situations where someone speaks Cherokee and they are talking with someone
else that speaks another [Indian] language. They dont speak each others
language so they communicate in English.

In addition to funding language teaching programs and stressing the
importance of cultural preservation, Anderton has other ideas for stemming
the tide. One notion, she says, is for a tribe hosting a powwow or other
cultural celebration to use the occasion as a chance to speak in their
language, making the event more specific to that tribe and highlighting
their language in the process. So if its in Kiowa Country, they use-and
everyone learns-a little Kiowa, Anderton said. According to the society,
out of the 591, 437 people enrolled in Oklahoma tribes, only 22,979 of
them are fluent in their tribal languages. That boils down to a whopping
96.2-percent of the tribal population not knowing how to speak the
language of their ancestors. Delving further, the numbers turn even
grimmer. The number of children newly fluent in tribal languages due to
programs of the last 20 years: Zero. At the current rate of speaker
replacement, likely surviving languages by 2030: Five. The tribes
themselves are not wholly blameless. Out of 39 tribes in the state only 10
fund language preservation programs. The Modoc, for example, did not. Now
their language is gone.

Albert Lorentz made a three hour round trip to attend the society's
language celebration. He has three daughters ranging in age from 12 to 13
and each is enrolled in a Pawnee language program. He is optimistic about
the future of his tribes language preservation efforts. Our language is
coming back, he said. Pawnee children are returning to their roots. But
the parents have to keep at it.


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