Native American tribe strives to save language from extinction

omaha language 1

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.

Thurston County, Neb., in red, where the Omaha Tribe is centered.

Thurston County, Neb., in red, where the Omaha tribe is centered.

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.)

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15 thoughts on “Native American tribe strives to save language from extinction

  1. Hate seeing anything go like this could. Language is such a part of our heritage and cultural identity. There are probably far more people speak my local dialect, well there would be, we number more than 7.000 people …

    • I hate to see this, as well. I’d like to think that with advances in technology the myriad endangered languages around the world can be preserved, but It’s awful difficult to turn back 100 or more years of a native language being treated as verboten.

  2. hopefully we don’t ever lose the languages of the world, though i know many have been lost already. when visiting australia, i spent the day in an aboriginal kindergarten, where they taught the kids the language, the culture and traditions in order to maintain and teach their culture to the younger generation. it was amazing.

    • It must have been an eye-opening experience. After the way the Australian government treated the native people for so long, the least it can do today is attempt to teach and maintain the aboriginal cultural.

  3. CBC- this is so important. Language gives us such wonderful insights into underlying culture and humanity, in general. I applaud all people and programs who are working to maintain indigenous languages in the face of globalization.

    When I was at uni, I opted to learn Irish- the language of my maternal grandparents, and something I heard relatively frequently as a small child. A lot of people couldn’t understand why I’d ‘bother’- yet learning to read and speak Irish opened up a whole new appreciation of the poetry and music and history of the land in a way that is hard to describe (and heightened my love of Yeats, as I learned about his tireless work to record the stories and songs of the Irish-speaking population). Fortunately, Ireland has had a fair bit of success re-introducing Irish language learning in its school system- so the music isn’t confined to the Gaeltachts any more.

    Lovely post!

    • Each language approaches and sees the world differently. When we lose a language, we lose a perspective on the world.

      Irish has always held a special place for me and I completely understand why you would study it. It’s a very evocative language with a deep, rich history. Those who can’t understand why you’d want to study it, it would seem to me, don’t fully understand the beauty of a language, any language. I’m heartened that Irish has seen a resurgence, though apparently there is still plenty of push-back from the “English-only” crowd.

      And, yes, Yeats was a genius, and in more ways than one.

      • While I was working on my PhD I was asked- frequently- by fellow-candidates (who worked on contemporary religious movements, primarily) why on earth I’d want to study dead languages- like Coptic, Ancient Greek, Latin- when ‘most of the stuff has been translated into English’… This from ‘academics’.

        Your Yeats-based comment has the wheels turning for a post- so, thank you for that. We’ll see if I can make it into something worth sharing.

      • Amazing that academics would not understand that so much is lost when a language is translated. I love Tolstoy and several other Russian authors, but also understand that no matter how good the translation, something is lost by not being able to read them in Russian. I would be much less confident of the translations of works written in dead languages.

        Yeats was an amazing individual. Truly, if you’ll excuse the cliché, a renaissance man. I look forward to your post (no pressure there).

  4. The Bretons used to have the same treatment in schools…but Breton has revived with the rise of nationalism.
    Mark you there are a heck of a lot more Bretons than Umonhon people….

    • I’m not sure what it is with the powers that be – be they English, French, Americans, Australians, etc. – that couldn’t stomach a local tongue being spoken, but the story seems to have been pretty much the same: beat the tar out of anyone who dared speak anything but the language of the Mother Country. Of course, the Bretons, I understand, are naturally resistant to being subjected to such treatment.

      • There’s a policy in Costa Rica that children of the indigenous groups should be taught in their own language….all very well and very P.C., but how does this help them develop as part of Costa Rican society? Balance is needed, I think. Easy to say, hard to achieve, but i worry about these kids effectively confined like rare beasts to their cultural reserve.

      • Yes, there’s no need to exclude them from Spanish-language classes. I’m all for teaching indigenous languages and cultures, but education must also ensure that individuals can adapt to today’s world.

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  6. I wonder how many other Native American languages have been lost – and how many may have been saved if there were more people aware and willing to put in the hard work needed to help the language survive. I’m sure I could get a relative count with some research, yet I’m wiling to bet there are many more that we’ve lost and it has not been documented.
    Thank you for posting this! It is definitely eye opening. The most fascinating thing is how to write down an unwritten language. I wonder, will it lose some of its uniqueness/originality if it is written down phonetically with the English alphabet?

    • Many Native American languages have been lost over the past century, unfortunately. Most never had a formal written alphabet, which hindered their survival, of course.

      I think you’re right that writing any language down in phonetic English will necessarily detract from some of its original meaning. However, failing to do so could mean that the language is lost completely. Better to capture some of the language than none, I believe.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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