TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- The death of an elderly tribesman has complicated efforts to save the dying Euchee Indian language and record the tribe's fading history.
Last month, 82-year-old Mose Cahwee died, and University of Tulsa anthropology professor Richard Grounds said the death was a major setback.
Cahwee had provided volumes on Euchee history on hundreds of families that once lived near Bristow, Sapulpa and Liberty Mounds near Tulsa.
"Mose was very active in the language and culture," said Grounds, himself an Euchee descendant. "He was kind of a walking encyclopedia. He knew the history and Euchee medicine plants."
Now, only about five Euchee speakers are left, Grounds said.
That is out of about estimated 2,400 people who claim Euchee ancestry.
Grounds is working on the Euchee Language Preservation Project, which is sponsored by a $297,300 federal grant.
The three-year grant has enabled Grounds and Euchee speakers to gather weekly at the Sapulpa Indian Community Center to record the language and history.
Euchee is sometimes spelled Yuchi. The tribe originated in Alabama and Georgia but their language was different from neighboring tribes.
The Euchee population shrank in northeast Oklahoma over the years and use of the language dwindled as well.
Grounds said the language is not dead, although it is close to extinction.
Remembering the language isn't easy for native speakers.
Euchee elder Maggie Cumsey Marsey, 82, squints one eye, cocks her head and stares into space as she tries to remember the Euchee word for corn soup. She hasn't spoken the word in decades.
Sometimes she recalls a Creek word instead because Creeks and Euchees often intermarried and learned parts of each others'
language. Marsey said she was discouraged from speaking her native tongue when she attended Lone Star school in the 1930s.
"I can speak it, but I struggle sometimes because I haven't said some of these words in 30 or 40 years," Marsey said.
Grounds said he hopes the project helps develop a curriculum, based on phonetics in the absence of a native alphabet, to teach Euchee to future generations.
Grounds, who is learning the language himself during the project, said he and project assistants Wanda A. Greene and Linda Littlebear Harjo are working with elders to create new Euchee words to keep the language current. The new words would be for bicycle, telephone and computer.
The preservation project is to be completed in 2003, Grounds said. The work and artifacts are to be housed at the University of Tulsa.