Tribes Fight to Keep Their Languages Alive

Article excerpt

CARNEGIE -- In a long conference room surrounded by darkened halls, six members of the Kiowa Tribe have gathered at their tribal center with the goal of saving the tribe's very future.

Ages 15 to 67, they have come here on a quiet Tuesday night to study their native language, which just decades after being put into writing is mostly spoken only by a shrinking number of tribal elders.

One of them is Dorothy Kodaseet, who sits at a long conference table with the assembled group.

Her eyes -- behind glasses as big around as coasters -- rarely move from a prepared worksheet as she slowly reads a list of Kiowa words.

"Etal," she says, stubbornly repeating the Kiowa word for corn several times until the group echoes her exact pronunciation: ay- tal.

The session, often sidetracked by storytelling and good-natured ribbing, resembles a pretest study session for which all members are prepared. But at stake in this test is the loss of the Kiowa language, and none among the group is prepared for that.

"This is our last chance," says Ernest Toppah, 63, of his tribe's efforts to sustain a language that has been slowly dying for most of the past century.

Across the table, Bobby Guoladdle, 67, recalls having his mouth washed out with soap as a child at a government-run boarding school in Anadarko for uttering Kiowa words.

"I got so used to it I started brushing my teeth with soap after a while," he says with a chuckle.

Native languages like Kiowa, purged for decades through governmental assimilation programs and bombarded by a cacophonous English-speaking culture, have dwindled drastically -- dozens to the point of extinction.

While there were once believed to be more than 300 native languages spoken in North America, only about 155 remain. More than 40 of the extant languages claim less than 10 living speakers, according to numbers from the Census Bureau.

"It's awfully bleak for most of the languages," said Greg Bigler, a Yucchi who helped found the Oklahoma Native Language Association in 1997 to promote the usage of tribal languages.

No tribe is immune. The Navajo Tribe in the American Southwest claims 150,000 speakers -- more than four times the number listed in any other tribe. But between 1980 and 1990, the tribe saw a 30 percent jump in Navajo children who only spoke English.

"If that can happen to a tribe like the Navajo, the rest of us are in serious trouble," Bigler said.

While Oklahoma claims a nation-high 25 native languages, less than 7 percent of the state's American Indians say they speak one of them. Only a fraction of that 7 percent are fluent.

There are no fluent speakers in the Miami Tribe, said Julie Olds, the tribe's cultural preservation officer.

Relying on a network of elders who are "conversational" in Miami, Olds said the tribe holds language classes and two summer immersion camps in which participants spend a week secluded with Miami- speaking elders.

Camp visitors range in age from 5 all the way to tribal elders, which Olds said is an important dynamic of the program. …