Keeping Language Alive: Linguists and Tribe Members Work to Restore Native Languages

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Among Oklahoma's 2,636-member Wichita tribe, octogenarian Doris McLemore is the sole person who fluently speaks the native language.

And Terri Parton, president of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, says that makes her both a treasure and an imperiled, cultural linchpin.

"We are trying currently to get as much information out of her as we can. Once she's gone ..." says Parton, also the tribes' liaison to the Breath of Life Institute, an offshoot of the quasi-federal Endangered Language Fund.

"If we lose languages, especially at the rate we are losing them now ... we lose the definition of what it means to be human," says Dr. Mary Linn, a University of Oklahoma linguist who is co-coordinator of the Oklahoma Breath of Life workshops and archival efforts aimed at nine tribes, including the Wichita.

"Every single language is a huge library," she added. "And once that disappears, we cannot really get it back."

Developing a coterie of community-based American Indians who are restoring, recording and inputting tribal languages into a publicly accessible online database is a broad aim of the project focusing on Oklahoma, which has 39 officially recognized tribes. In addition to Wichita, the participants include the Alabama, Apache, Shawnee and Natchez Indians. As another example, six of the 10,000 Natchez in Oklahoma are fluent in their tribal language.

The aimed-for language revival in Oklahoma, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project, also draws recordings and other documents collected by linguists, beginning roughly in the mid-20th Century. For some of the Oklahoma languages, however, no documentation whatsoever has been discovered.

And while a database is central to Breath of Life, the project has other yields. For example, a group of Alabamas, who, in Oklahoma, are officially associated with the Creeks, published a book detailing the Alabama alphabet.

"We created something for them to take home that they could use, either to go through it with their grandkids or nieces and nephews or show their friends what they worked on all week," says Lori McLain Pierce, a University of Texas Arlington linguistics doctoral student and Breath of Life assistant.

"Historically, Native American groups have not been treated well by our government and other entities. That's what part of this is about. It's an attempt, for them, to take back some of that ownership. It's empowerment," she says.

Linguists and historians partly link the language loss to compulsory efforts to keep American Indians from communicating in their tribal tongues. Beginning in the late 1800s, the federal government ordered hundreds of thousands of American Indian children into White-run boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak anything other than English and were indoctrinated in Euro-American ways. That practice began declining in the 1970s, largely due to 1975's Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

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"It's surprising--in the face of all of that--that these languages exist at all," Oklahoma's Linn says, citing the removal of American Indian children from their families. Other factors that threatened American Indian lives, and thereby, their language, were widespread American Indian deaths from diseases brought to shore by European immigrants and wars between those immigrants and American Indians, she says.

"Then," she adds, "after the exhaustion of being at the bottom [socially and economically] ... after World War II, in some families, there was the rightful belief that English was access to economic development. Since the U. …