Bringing a language back to life

November 24th, 2020 by With fewer and fewer fluent speakers of the Crow language, advocates for revitalizing it hope a free online dictionary can aid people already working to bolster their skills and make learning the language more accessible. On Thursday, a group of linguists, native Crow speakers and programmers launched the app after four years of work on the project. The dictionary contains more than 10,000 entries and audio of Crow language speakers demonstrating pronunciation. It is free to download on Android and IOS devices. The group that spearheaded the project — a coalition of the nonprofit Language Conservancy, the Crow Nation, Little Big Horn College and the Crow Language Consortium — celebrated the app’s launch during a virtual event that included a demonstration and remarks from participants in the project. The hope, said Crow Language Consortium Board Chair and Project Director Janine Pease, is that the dictionary app will be useful for people currently trying to learn the language, inspire learners who don’t have access to a fluent teacher, and meet younger generations where they already spend a lot of their time. “Technology is really accessible to our youngsters,” she said. “What really is important, is it can step into the grand scheme of media and technology but have the quality that delivers the language.” In the past, Pease said, she was hesitant about using technology to teach the language, preferring one-on-one methods to “rekindle the way language was learned for generations upon generations.” “Because of where we are in history and time, we need to take advantage of each and every tool we have,” she said. There are other dictionaries of the Crow language, also known as Apsaalooke, but in many cases they aren’t as accessible as the online app, either out of print and hard to find or too expensive for many language learners. The new app’s launch comes as Crow fluency rates have dropped from 85% in the 1960s to 20% today. Fluent Crow speakers currently number about 4,200, while some tribes have only a handful of fluent speakers remaining, Pease said. Worldwide, about 90% of the approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken are expected to become extinct in the next 100 years, according to the Language Conservancy. In the last 400 years, more than 200 Indigenous languages in the United States have gone extinct, according to the nonprofit, which works to help endangered languages endure. Read more: Montana Free Press

Animated speaking: New cartoon focuses on Cherokee language

August 28th, 2020 by As a child growing up in Northeast Oklahoma, Betty Frogg grew up in a home learning to speak Cherokee first, then English. Frogg’s parents, Louise Ross Springwater and Lacy Christie, encouraged her to speak their native language at home, even as she became bilingual while attending the Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte, Oklahoma. Her father’s constant encouragement to retain her language skills continues to resonate with Frogg. “Dad always told me, ‘Don’t lose the language,’” Frogg said. “He told me I would use it someday to help people.” Now decades later, Frogg — designated by the tribe as a Cherokee National Treasure — is a basket weaver, practitioner of traditional arts, a first-language Cherokee speaker and a language teacher at the Cherokee Immersion Charter School in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. This summer, Frogg added a new credential to her resume. She became one of four Cherokee voice actors working with the Cherokee Nation, the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, and FireThief Productions to create an animated series called “Inage’i,” which translates to “In the Woods.” The series follows the adventures of four friends who live in the forests of Turtle Island — Iga Daya’i, a mischievous rabbit; Juksvsgi, a gruff wolf; Anawegi, a conscientious deer; and Kvliwohi, a wise bear. Frogg portrays Iga Daya’i. The other actors are Harry Oosahwee, another first-language Cherokee speaker; and Lauren Hummingbird and Schon Duncan, two second-language speakers. All are part of the Cherokee Nation Film Office’s Native American talent database. The series, which draws from Cherokee storytelling tradition, was funded through the tribe’s Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act, a measure designed to preserve and revitalize the Cherokee language. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. hopes the animated series achieves several goals, including encouraging a new generation of Cherokees to learn their native language and giving them a way to make a living using their knowledge. “Preserving and perpetuating the Cherokee language for future generations requires new avenues that allow us to both share and teach the language,” Hoskin said. “This partnership has produced an animated series pilot that I believe will grab the attention of children and adults alike. Whether they are introduced to the Cherokee language for the first time or reintroduced to a language that they are already familiar with, we are excited about the groundbreaking possibilities this series will create for the Cherokee language in the years to come.” The pilot is set to debut during Labor Day weekend at the Cherokee National Holiday. While much of the celebration is virtual this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people will have a chance to view the cartoon and other multimedia projects during a “drive-in” theater performance. It will also be featured online at thecherokeeholiday.com after the presentation. Frogg said she hopes people of all ages watch the cartoon and fall in love with the characters. “I’m totally pumped,” Frogg said. “I can’t wait for people to see it. Kids are going to see something they’ve never seen before. Things being said use everyday language. I hope kids fall in love with it.” Read more: The Joplin Globe

Coining New Words Key to Revitalizing Native American Languages

May 8th, 2019 by WASHINGTON — It was a thrilling find for a then-graduate student in linguistics: While conducting research in Jesuit archives in Quebec in 1999, Michael McCafferty discovered a previously unknown manuscript - a dictionary of the Myaamia-Illinois language, handwritten by a 17th century Jesuit missionary. Comprising some 22,000 entries, the manuscript has played a key role in helping the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma revitalize a language not spoken in generations. In Massachusetts, linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts and co-founder of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, is also working from old documents to restore a language that died out a century ago. “We have the largest collection of Native-written documents in North America,” she said, explaining that 17th century missionaries worked with the tribe to create an alphabet and translate the Bible and other works. “The Wampanoag people quickly took the convention of writing and used it as a tool to protect themselves where land transactions and other things were concerned,” Baird said. “We’ve been plugging away at this for about 25 years and now have a dictionary with roughly 12,000 entries, compiled just from those early documents.” Today, the tribe boasts two credentialed linguists and a Wopanaak immersion school for preschool through first grades, which Baird hopes will expand in the future. Read more:

How do you say “smartphone” in Lakota?

March 9th, 2018 by “Adorkable.” “Manspreading.” “Frenemies.” Coining new words to fit modern needs is a practice that goes back to the beginning of language; Shakespeare, for example, is said to have introduced somewhere from 1700 to 3200 new words. Peter Hill may not be Shakespeare, but he has cataloged around 3000 new words in the indigenous Lakota language. Hill, a Philadelphian who married into Lakota fluency, runs a language immersion school at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Over the past six years, Hill and other Lakota speakers have hashed original phrases to encompass newly English concepts such as “smartphone,” “methamphetamines” and “same-sex marriage.” For Hill, the effort to craft neologisms is key to revitalizing a marginalized language — a tongue the federal government took pains to suppress. Today, the words developed by Hill and other native speakers provide a look into how languages evolve and shape themselves. At Hill’s immersion school, everyone — from teachers to students — tries to speak Lakota 100 percent of the time. Children ages 1 to 5 run through classrooms, and play in areas filled with Lakota picture books. Hill opened the school in 2012 via online fundraising with the mission of reviving the Lakota language, which had only about 2000 speakers left as of 2016, according to the nonprofit Lakota Language Consortium. Maintaining immersion is how Hill hopes his students learn Lakota in an English-dominated world. This has required some flexibility: When a teacher asked Hill what it meant to wear something “ironically,” he struggled to translate the exact purpose. The language did not have an exact word for the concept — and frankly, the concept was even difficult to explain in English. “We had to step back and explain,” Hill recalled, “that some people have adopted the notion that when you wear something, you’re not wearing it to look nice, but to deliberately look bad — but in a particular way that has its own cachet.” (There still isn’t a specific word for “ironically,” but they can at least explain the concept in Lakota.) Read more: The Outline

Keepers of a lost culture

December 3rd, 2017 by Beulah Timothy is a ghost of history. So is her brother, Richard Snake, and their childhood friend, Alma Burgoon. Their home is the Delaware Nation Reserve, 3,000 acres of rich farmland 150 miles southwest of Toronto. Small, well-kept homes surrounded by corn fields dot the reserve, which is crisscrossed by gravel roads and bordered by a slow moving muddy river called the Thames. Their ancestors came here 200 years ago in the company of missionaries. It was the end of a long journey. The Delaware had been on the run for generations after fleeing the region of the lower Hudson River and western Long Island in the early 1640s to escape certain extinction in a war waged by Dutch settlers. Nearly 500 people live at Moraviantown, as the reserve is known. They are ghosts of a long lost homeland that has forgotten them as much as they have forgotten it. Their history in New York and on Long Island has been all but obliterated by the passage of 3 1/2 centuries and untold amounts of concrete and asphalt. Hidden away in Canada, the Delaware are a people forgotten by the land they were forced to flee. But the lives of Richard Snake, Beulah Timothy and Alma Burgoon represent even greater anomalies within their world -- they are the last speakers of a language called Munsee Delaware. It was the language of New York, centuries before there was a New York, and Long Island, when no one but the Algonquian Indians knew it was an island. Munsee Delaware was the language that explorer Henry Hudson heard in 1607 as he sailed up the river that now bears his name; the language heard by another explorer, Adrian Block, who with his men spent the winter of 1613-14 on Manhattan Island building a ship they christened the Restless. It was the language heard by the Dutch as they expanded their settlements onto the western end of Long Island, pushing aside the Delaware and turning them into refugees. And it was a language spoken for thousands of generations on Long Island. That the descendants of those refugees still live as a community -- that anyone anywhere can still speak the language -- seems incredible. Read more: Newsday

How This Native Educator Is Keeping A Tribal Language Alive

October 13th, 2017 by On the Omaha Native American reservation in northeastern Nebraska, one educator is working hard to keep the tribal language alive by helping kids to learn it in school. Vida Woodhull Stabler is the director of the Omaha (or “Umonhon” in the tribe’s language) culture center at Umonhon Nation Public Schools in Macy, Nebraska. She has been working for the past 18 years to painstakingly gather, record and pass on the cultural knowledge of tribal elders for future generations. Alongside other elders in the community, she has helped to developed a curriculum and lesson plans for Umonhon language classes, as well as other ways to infuse students’ day-to-day school experience with culturally relevant learnings, such as tribal songs and dance. But she and her colleagues face an uphill battle: Only about a dozen Umonhon tribe members are believed to speak the language fluently today, Stabler told HuffPost. “It is important for children” to learn the Umonhon language, Stabler told HuffPost. “I truly believe this: There is an innate need, want and love of our culture inside of them. They will become stronger as human beings when they know who they are, and can stand firm and strong against all the challenges that life will throw at them.” Kyleigh Merrick, 15, who has attended Umonhon Nation schools since kindergarten, has chosen Umonhon language as an elective class. “I hope to become one of the fluent speakers,” Merrick told HuffPost. “To me it is really important for everyone to learn the language and to teach our kids, because there aren’t that many fluent speakers. If I can become a fluent speaker, I can teach everyone else and help the language not die.” Read more: Huffington Post

Wisconsin School Works To Keep Native American Languages Alive Around The World

October 6th, 2017 by In Hayward, Wisconsin, a program is working to preserve Native American language and culture in the state and across the world. Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute is an immersion school where the Ojibwe language isn't only taught, it's the language used to teach all core classes. Waadookodaading means "a place where people help each other," and the name is apt. The school's mission and activities reach far beyond its own facility, and even past the borders of the state. Executive Director Brooke Ammann explained Waadookodaading was a founding member of the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools & Programs. That group is made up of schools and programs in 16 states that use an indigenous language as the language of instruction for at least half of the classes offered in the targeted grades. "We share with each other when we need support, not just in any of the policy fields, but also in planning and sharing best practices that we have all developed over time with our programs," Ammann said, adding that coalition members "share knowledge, resources. At times, we also will review any upcoming federal policies to see if they align with the Native American Languages Act of 1990. It's a law that protects the right to use our native languages in educational settings." Ojibwe and other Native American languages didn't decline naturally. Federal policy aimed to wipe them out. For example, an 1868 Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners stated "schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted." Read more: WPR

Reclaiming A Lost Tribal Language: How, and at What Cost?

July 17th, 2017 by Growing up, I spent summers going to the Turtle Project, which was a camp for Aquinnah Wampanoag kids run by our tribe. Aquinnah is a small town on the far end of Martha’s Vineyard. Every year the island swells with seasonal tourists flocking to its idyllic beaches and picturesque towns. Although I never considered myself a tourist because of my familial and cultural ties to the island, my childhood experiences there mostly matched up with the tourists’. We would spend all day at the beach or the famous Agricultural Fair in August. For a couple years, a woman named Jessie Little Doe Baird ran the camp. Before Baird took over, we spent our days playing outside and learning about local wildlife. With Baird, we spent most of the beautiful summer days inside, learning Wampanoag language and traditions. I remember one trip we made to a local beach; we were learning how to track animals in the dunes and we weren’t even allowed to go in the water. I don’t know who was responsible for the change, but around this time I remember being irritated that we weren’t supposed to call the Turtle Project a “camp,” because we were there to learn, not just have fun. Baird’s tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and my tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag, are sister tribes. Related, but separate. Shared histories, similar customs, but separate governments and individual stories. Geographically too, our tribes are very close. Mashpee, a small town in Cape Cod, is a short boat ride away. Mashpee has one of the biggest East Coast powwows. Each summer, in the height of powwow season, their powwow attracts the best dancers and the biggest crowds. Fireball, a dangerous cleansing ritual performed by playing a game with, well, a fireball, is a legendary highlight of the Mashpee powwow. We have a new powwow organized by our youth group that’s at the tail end of powwow season in September. Local dancers and tourists who happen to be there make up most of the crowd. There is a familial rivalry and closeness between the two tribes. In fact, Baird is married to an Aquinnah Wampanoag — our Medicine Man. Read more: Electric Literature

Native American Two Spirit Fights to Keep Tribe’s Language Alive

May 9th, 2017 by The ancestral home of DeLesslin "Roo" George-Warren's tribe is along the banks of the Catawba River, near the modern border of North Carolina and South Carolina. Thousands of years before first contact with Europeans, they called themselves Ye Iswąˀ, or "people of the river." When George-Warren pulled up to his sister's house in Rock Hill, South Carolina, after spending the past few years in D.C., much had changed. His tribe was known as Catawba, and their language, from which words like Ye Iswąˀ had come, had fallen into disuse. The last fluent speaker died in 1964. "In 1989, our tribe discussed our priorities, and one of them was revitalizing our language," he said in a phone interview with NBC Out. "That was two years before I was born." George-Warren was born in Atlanta but grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a short distance away from the Catawba Reservation. He was selected this year as a recipient of the Dreamstarter grant program for Native youth, headed up by the nonprofit Running Strong foundation. After being selected, he packed his things in Washington and moved back home to begin the Catawba Language Project. Read more: NBC News

Online classes, modern textbooks helping revitalize Cherokee language

May 5th, 2017 by Recent research focusing on Native American languages and how they are taught is helping revitalize the Cherokee language, in part, through online courses and modern textbooks developed by the Cherokee Nation. Using these updated methods, the Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Program continues to have a far-reaching impact, with up to 3,000 students taking online courses and around 400 taking community classes each year. Participating students are from all ages and all corners of the world. “There are so many people interested in preserving the language,” said Ed Fields, an online instructor with the Cherokee Language Program who has taught courses for more than a decade. Fields teaches a 10-week, online Cherokee language course in the spring and fall each year, with participants gathering online one hour per day, two days a week. His spring course started April 10 and fall class will start Sept. 11, with registration opening Aug. 28. Through a live camera, students see Fields as he uses his own curriculum and life experiences to teach Cherokee. Online Cherokee language classes are offered for free from the Cherokee Nation website www.cherokee.org. Read more: Cherokee Nation

How to revive Massachusetts’ first language

March 26th, 2017 by In a classroom on the main floor of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal resources center, a dozen or so toddlers are speaking a language that until a few decades ago had no living speakers. This is the language of the Wampanoag Nation, the first language of Massachusetts. The fact that these children are learning it is due to a movement that began with one woman, Jessie Little Doe Baird, whose office is down the hall. Baird’s success at creating a layperson’s handbook of grammar and compiling a working dictionary was unprecedented. “It’s about fixing what happened,” Baird said of her life’s work. “It’s about making whole what was broken.” In articles about Baird, and there have been many, her feat is usually portrayed as a completed triumph. The stories usually talk about how Baird won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2010. They describe the Wampanoag language — called Wôpanâak or Wôpanâôt8âôk in its own modified alphabet — as “resurrected.” In the global movement to preserve and restore endangered languages, the tribe’s Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is a “poster child,” said linguist Lenore Grenoble. Read more: The Boston Globe

Last fluent Mandan speaker dies, puts language at risk

December 16th, 2016 by The death of Edwin Benson, of Twin Buttes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in west-central North Dakota, who was the last living soul who could fluently speak Mandan could bring the possible extinction of a language that expressed the unique experiences and perceptions of a once-thriving tribe of Plains Indians. Benson died Friday at age 85. A wake was held at Twin Buttes Monday, a night of frigid cold outside, where the tradition of honoring the deceased with beautiful star quilts and woolen blankets was warm in remembrance. The solitary coffin at the front of the hall — bedecked with elaborate headdresses and flower arrangements — held so much more than the mortal remains of a man. It contained all the diversity that a language adds to the world and for that, most especially, Three Affiliated Tribes councilman Cory Spotted Bear came to express his regrets at Benson's passing. "The world we live in becomes less. The language is the way the Mandan see the world," Spotted Bear said. Spotted Bear has been behind efforts to preserve Nu'eta, the proper word for Mandan, not only through his earlier work with Benson and personal graduate work in linguistics, but through a two-year, $1 million project funded by the tribe to document and collate all known records of the language. Read more: West Central Tribune