Imagine your native language has but a few fluent speakers. An even dozen, to be exact, and none under the age of 70.
That’s the situation sisters Glenna Slater and Octa Keen of Macy, Neb., find themselves in.
The pair is among the few certified to teach the language of the Omaha Indian tribe, called Umónhon. They keep a tally of people who still speak their language.
That list is now on a single leaf of notebook paper, complete with names that have been crossed out, representing speakers who have died, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
“The sisters fear a day may come when the last name is scratched out,” according to the publication.
“It just tears part of your heart out,” Keen said, “because you know it’s never coming back.”
Umónhon is among approximately 2,000 languages around the globe that are classified as “severely endangered,” according to the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages.
To be classified as severely endangered, a language must have between 10 and 100 speakers.
On average, about one endangered language is lost each year.
The Omaha tribe, centered just south of Sioux City, Iowa, has more than 7,000 members. However, the tribal council estimates fewer than 150 know parts of the language, and elders and teachers say only a handful are fluent.
A few in the Omaha tribe are fighting to keep theirs alive. Even though Umónhon had no written form, the language was spoken widely throughout the tribe until the middle of the 20th century.
Mark Awakuni-Swetland, an associate professor of anthropology and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, co-authored the first major Omaha language dictionary.
He said up through the 1960s, the boarding school experience essentially beat the native language out of Native American students, forcing them to speak English only and punishing those who spoke their native tongue by washing their mouths out with soap and administering switchings, according to the World-Herald.
“The last of the Omaha who grew up in homes and towns where the language was spoken are aging,” the publication added. “For them, the language that was once commonplace has become a luxury shared by few.”
At the Umónhon Nation Public School, teachers Vida Stabler and Pat Phillips and elder speaker Rufus White try to teach the language to kids from preschool through high school. But it is just a small part of the students’ otherwise all-English school day.
They teach from binders of material they created on the fly, using letters, conversations and recordings with native speakers. Text is hard to come by because the written form of the language is still in its infancy. Some of it is simply written phonetically to preserve what the few surviving native speakers say.
Swetland is developing a textbook at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but until completed, the lessons rely on the binders and a newly created Omaha Basic app for the iPhone and iPad. Each lesson is created from firsthand research.
“Most people couldn’t fathom how much time we’ve had to spend on it,” Stabler said.
Teachers of the Omaha language often mention the idea of immersion programs, but such an effort takes a significant investment of capital and manpower.
“Turning a language around requires a lot of community commitment and a lot of skilled people devoted to developing curricula and helping teachers,” said George Aaron Broadwell, a linguistic anthropologist at the University at Albany, State University of New York. “Awareness of the problem, it doesn’t alone solve it.”
(Top: Alice Saunsoci, right, the Umónhon language instructor at Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, Neb., and her son, Frank, discuss the language class. Photo credit: Omaha World-Herald.)