Kiowa Tribe Fights for Language

Wednesday, August 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

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

Ages 15 to 67, they came here one 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 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 it was once believed that there were 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 spoke only 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 is 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.

``The children need the support of those elders and to see them there, and it's a great thing for the elders to see the language is not going to be gone,'' Olds said.

The Comanche Tribe also has undertaken a language immersion program in which a non-speaker is teamed with a fluent elder, spending as much time as possible speaking in the native tongue.

Lillie Roberts teaches the Choctaw language at classes in Durant, which are broadcast on the Internet and prominently advertised on the tribe's Web page. A network of Choctaw speakers teach the language in more than a dozen other Oklahoma communities.

But Roberts knows that even Choctaw, with roughly 18,000 tribal members claiming to be speakers, has an uncertain future.

``I don't think it can ever come back in the force it was in the old days, but to preserve the language is our goal now,'' Roberts said.

Classes are taught within the Chickasaw, Cherokee and other tribes. Help comes as well from the University of Oklahoma, which teaches four native languages — Cherokee, Choctaw, Kiowa and Creek-Seminole.

The classes attract about 330 students each semester, Indian and non-Indian alike, said Pat Gilman, chair of the anthropology department that offers the classes.

``One of the university's stated goals is to focus on Native American studies and the fact that we get such high interest in it suggests that people out there in the state find it interesting,'' Gilman said.

But if tribes have any hope of sustaining their languages going forward, they must reach that all-important demographic: youth.

It will not be easy, predicted Isiah Redbird, a 15-year-old Kiowa. He and his 17-year-old brother, Sunny, were the only teen-agers at a recent Kiowa language class.

``The Kiowa people my age only use the (Kiowa) words in slang, but it's not meant to be that way,'' said Redbird, who is dedicated to learning the Kiowa language. ``The language doesn't sound cool to them. It just sounds weird.''

Redbird, who plans to attend Yale University like his 19-year-old sister, Melody, said he would like to return one day to Carnegie and lead the Kiowa Tribe. Whether the tribe still has a language by the time that might happen, he said, is up to him and his peers.

``The language is dying out and it's terrible, it's sad,'' said Redbird. ``Classes will slow down the process of losing Kiowa (language), but that's all we can do unless we get the youth to learn the language.''


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