Oklahoma Native Languages at the Centennial
MARY S. LINN
On license plates and television commercials, the state of Oklahoma proudly announces itself as “Native America.” But just how Native is Oklahoma? The answer is probably much more than the advertisement agency or the average Oklahoman, taking in the occasional powwow or Indian art show, probably understands. The answer is more and more everyday as Native Oklahomans regain their tongues and voices.
Oklahoma has more Native languages still spoken than any other state. Part of this diversity lies in the history of the state, now celebrating its centennial year. The lush yet harsh prairies were the ancestral home of the Wichita, a tribe that included the internal linguistic diversity of Wichita, Keechi, Waco, and Towakoni dialects, and their Caddo cousins. There were also the Osage, a Dhegiha-Siouan people whose seasonal migration extended into what is now north central Oklahoma. The Kiowa and the Plains Apache claimed rights to much of western Oklahoma. In the nineteenth century, this picture changed radically. The story is a familiar one of lust for the fecund Indian lands of the eastern woodlands and southern savannah, broken treaties, and baited internal conflict that culminated in the forced removal of many tribes from their homelands and their relocation into Indian Territory: the new Promised Land. It was promised to the Cherokee and Keetowah, the southernmost Iroquoian-speaking tribe. It was promised to the entire Muskogean language family: the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Seminole (along with some of their Mikasuki cousins), and the diverse peoples of the Creek Confederacy (including, besides the Maskoke Creek, the Alabama, Quassarte, the Hitchiti, to name a few) and the Muskogean-speaking peoples who came with the Confederacy: the Euchee, the Natchez, and the Yamasee. It was promised to Shawnee (even those who where conspicuously absent from mandatory roll-taking), the Potawatomi, the Kickapoo, the Miami, the Illinois (including the Peoria, the Kaskaskia, the Wea, and the Piankashaw), the Ottawa, the Lenape and the Western Delaware, the Sauk and the Fox. It was promised to the Seneca (including Iroquois, Tuscarora, Wyandotte, and Erie) and the Cayuga. It was promised to the Siouan-speaking Kaw, the Quapaw, the Ponca, the Iowa, and the Otoe-Missouria. It was promised to the Cheyenne and the Arapaho. It was promised to the Pawnee, both the South band and the Skiri. It was promised to the Comanche, and to the Fort Sill Apache. It was promised to the Tonkawa from Texas, and the Modoc from Oregon. It was promised to all for all time. As the diverse peoples adjusted to their impoverished conditions and their often radically new environments and neighbors, they began sharing their customs, songs, laughter, and new religious insights, while maintaining their identities and well over forty languages from at least eleven diverse language families. Truly, Oklahoma was born, not in 1907, but sometime earlier in the nineteenth century with a unique Native bond and determination.
Over time, the languages did suffer, and many of the languages of smallest tribes, sub-tribes, or bands are no longer spoken. Today, of the thirty-eight federally recognized tribes and towns, eighteen have no fluent speakers, many have only elderly speakers, and all are endangered, even the Cherokee language with nine thousand speakers. The causes vary. The infamously horrific boarding-school period instilled shame and fear of speaking Indian into several generations. A more insidious decay came from within: the human desire to forge a better life for one’s children, and the means to that end was overwhelmingly in English. There was also the encroaching familiarity with non-Indian ways of life. Like youth everywhere, the allure of the “other” led, especially after World War II, to more marriages outside of one’s tribe and movement of families away from tribal centers for new jobs. The intergenerational apron string of language was cut. There is no blame for any of the past generations’ choices, only acknowledgment of the current generations’ sense of responsibility to carry the heavy load of language renewal.
The emerging paradigm of language revitalization does not bode well for Oklahoma tribes. We are told that language revitalization and maintenance is most easily achieved (where easy is still extremely difficult) with endangered “national” languages, for example Welsh in Wales, Maori in New Zealand, and even Hawai’i in Hawaii. Yet, in Oklahoma there are thirty-nine languages represented today. We are told that languages with insulating land bases fare better in revitalization and maintenance, as with the Navajo in Arizona and the Mississippi Choctaw. In Oklahoma, no such havens have existed since allotment in 1898. We see that protective laws and tolerant state attitudes help, yet every year the state of Oklahoma begins the process of an English Only or English First bill. We see that collaborative revitalization teams in cooperation with traditional and elected forms of governing help initiate and maintain the massive work of revitalization, but are told stories of how Indians can’t get along but will always fight among themselves and one another.
Despite these difficulties, I see cooperation within tribes, with tribal leadership, with outside professionals, and across tribes and cultures. I see in these efforts the creation of a particularly Oklahoma brand of successful language revival. When I hear the centennial hymn “Oklahoma Rising” crooned by Vince Gill, I think, “Yep, it sure is.” Perhaps my image of Oklahoma rising is not the same image in the mind of many Oklahomans. Native Oklahoman languages are rising out of traumatic change and despair. Native Oklahoma is rising to the challenge to revive and maintain its forty-plus diverse languages, and through language, in part, I see the revival and maintenance of Indian identity in each individual tribal person, their families, clans, towns, bands, and tribes.
In 1929 a then-elderly Euchee man by the name of Maxey Simms talked about allotment and statehood. He remembered the meeting at the Creek Council House in Okmulgee when the Indian commissioner from the White House came to present allotment to the nation. A vote was taken, and all those supporting allotment where asked to stand toward the East. Here is the translation of his words:
They said that only one Indian was standing toward the East. They saw that the Indians did not want their land to be cut up. But they went on doing it anyway, and cut it up. It may have brought much money, but if the land would still be like it was before, it would have been better. I used to hear people say that the land was their mother, and the water they drank, they used to call milk. If there were no good houses and no motorcars, but the land were free, I would take that first.
This is the same attitude I hear and see and feel today in those striving to reclaim their languages in Oklahoma. The speakers, the teachers, the young learners, and the believers are willing to give up much to get back what is theirs. What could be more Native America?
University of Oklahoma
Mary S. Linn is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Curator of Native American Languages at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. At the museum, she is building a Native-language collection dedicated to collaborative efforts with Oklahoma tribes and tribal people to actively document their languages, guide student research in language maintenance and revitalization, and provide resources for language advocacy and teaching. Since 1996 Linn has taught linguistics and language-teaching methodology throughout Oklahoma as part of the Oklahoma Native Language Association. She is the author of A Reference Grammar of Euchee (Yuchi) and is co-authoring a Euchee dictionary with Euchee elders.
“From the September-October 2007 issue of World Literature Today (81:4), pages 24-25. Copyright © 2007 World Literature Today.”