Preserving Native American Languages

Friday, October 27th 2006, 10:23 am
By: News On 6

Imagine being the last person on the planet who speaks your language. It's hard to picture with something as common as English, but that's exactly what elders of many Oklahoma Indian tribes are potentially facing.

With native speakers of many tribal languages dying off, there is a growing fear that the words will die with them. News on 6 reporter Heather Lewin has more on one local effort to save history.

Members of the Euchee Nation are learning the ancient language of their people. 82-year old Henry Washburn is not only the one person in a room who speaks fluent Euchee. He's the only man left in the world. "I'm the only man. It doesn't feel too good to me. I wish there was others."

He says Euchee dates back before recorded memory, it was his first language as a child. "The Euchee people came here in what you call the removal days on the Trail of Tears." After forced relocation by the US government, the Euchee way of life, like many other tribes, slowly began to die. "A lot of our tribe went to the government school years ago and they were punished for speaking their own language."

But the Euchee Language Project is bringing it back. Richard Grounds with the Euchee Language Project: "We feel like this is the most critical issue in Indian Country. What we lose is an enormous amount of knowledge, irreplaceable knowledge, knowledge that's only carried in the language."

Knowledge that was never written down because Euchee is an oral tradition without an alphabet. The project uses letters familiar to English speakers to help them make the proper sounds, but organizers say a Euchee alphabet is not the goal. Richard Grounds: “Sometimes the written form is almost like a barrier because people are trying to say it, to pronounce it syllable by syllable and the rhythm’s gone, the music's gone."

Grounds is also making digital recordings with Washburn to preserve the proper sound. Washburn spends every day at the center helping preserve the past. Henry Washburn: "It really makes me feel good because they're here to learn and they should learn, if they don't the language will be all gone."