Endangered Languages: Cultures at risk

Endangered Languages: Cultures at risk
(Images by: Honey Caranzo/Reporter, Design by: Mark Hill/Graphic Design Supervisor)

“You lose your language you lose the foundation of your identity, who you are.” –Yuchi Language Lead Instructor Ryan Hill

Honey Caranzo/Reporter

Darren DeLaune/Reporter


Do you speak the Mvskoke language?

OKMULGEE, Okla. — In less than 10 years there will no longer be any fluent Mvskoke language speakers if new speakers are not created.

Mvskoke Language Program Manager Judy Montiel said the program conducted a low scale survey that estimated there are fewer than 250 fluent speakers left.

She said based on the estimate, the language will be gone in less than 10 years.

“As a tribal citizen and a non-speaker myself, I feel commissioned to join this endeavor of raising awareness for us all to step up and learn our beautiful language,” she said.

(Honey Caranzo/Reporter)

For Mvskoke Language Program Instructor Rebecca Barnett, the language carries an historical and cultural significance.

“I teach it because it is something we’ve worked and suffered and spilled blood so hard that we just can’t lose it,” she said.

Mvskoke Language Program Instructor Gracine Hicks said the Mvskoke language is something the tribe cannot forget.

“I do this because we are losing our language,” she said.

As a child, Hicks’ grandmother told her that one-day the language would be gone.

“But I used to think to myself, there’s a lot of us that talk, we will never lose the language,” Hicks said.

Every year, she noticed the number of fluent speakers dwindling as more passed away.

“So our language is dying out and so to try to revitalize it, I work for the program trying to teach others the language so that it can be carried on for further generations than where I am at right now,” she said.

The program has four fluent-speakers and three non-speakers.

The challenges that I see our instructors face is knowing that when a language class is provided, resource material provided and a willing instructor, the challenge is the lack of interest on the learner’s part,” Montiel said.

She addressed the need for additional structure in order for the program to expand and take on future opportunities.

Montiel said the program desires to obtain a more accurate statistic on the number of fluent speakers left and those who are willing to teach.


Saving the Yuchi language

SAPULPA, Okla. — Martha Squire, Maxine Wildcat Barnett and Vada Nichwander are the last fluent Yuchi language speakers.

(Honey Caranzo/Reporter)

Under the guidance of these women, Yuchi Language Lead Instructor Ryan Hill has taught the language for over three years.

The fear of losing the language altogether is what drives Hill to work hard and motivate others to learn with him.

“I think the fear of losing the language is in the back of my mind, but seeing the progress we make here I know we have a long ways to go, but we are making progress and I can see it in myself and the kids,” he said.

Hill explained that the learning process is about reclaiming the language and their identities as Yuchi people.

You lose your language you lose the foundation of your identity, who you are,” he said.

Although Hill did not grow up speaking the Yuchi language, he heard the language through recordings and from elders.

He believes the last fluent speakers in his family were his great-great-grandparents.

It was not until his younger brothers were involved with the Yuchi Language Project that he began to show interest in learning himself.

“I saw a lot of progress they were making and then I attended the first Yuchi Knowledge Bowl, saw the progress that the rest of kids were making on the classes,” Hill said.

The event pushed him to take the next step.

“So that really inspired me and made me want to get involved and help any way I could,” he said.

Hill explained that the Yuchi language is not similar to the Mvskoke language.

“At times I wish it was so we could have people to work with and help us build off, learn new phrases and new words but it’s an ancient language,” he said.

He feels it is his duty to help teach the Yuchi language to the next generation.

“My ancestors faced many hardships just for me to exist and be here today as a Yuchi, so I want to carry on everything they carried on,” Hill said.

He said one of the main challenges of his job is motivating people to find the desire to learn the language.

Hill said many learners in the beginning are discouraged with the difficulty of the language. He explained that with any language it is important to never give up.

Hill said children are easier to teach than adults.

“It’s because everything is newer to them,” he said.

Their teaching method is through full language immersion.

“Using your eyes, ears, your brain, it makes you work harder. You retain that language better,” he said.

The projects’ goal is to document and record as much information on the language while they can.


Can you say ‘endangered’ in Mvskoke?

DUSTIN, Okla. — MCN is facing an epidemic. It is losing its language.

Muscogee (Creek) citizen Rosemary McCombs Maxey is a teacher of the Mvskoke language, and although does not consider herself fluent, she does consider herself proficient.

She said growing up the Mvskoke language was spoken all the time, but she learned both Mvskoke and English.

“My parents were bilingual,” Maxey said. “That family around me was also bilingual so I grew up learning both languages.”

She attended church in Hanna at Weogufkee Baptist Church and said the Mvskoke language was always used.

“We rarely used English,” Maxey said. “Although when the Sunday School began, they began to use more English.”

She recalled when she realized that the language was endangered. She was living in New York City and her mother and aunt came to visit her.

They visited and went to the top of the World Trade Center and her aunt said for all of them to speak in Mvskoke.

“We did and we talked about the landscape and the height of the building,” Maxey said.

Her aunt said that someday their language would be gone, but it would have been spoken from a tall building and as far as they could see.

“So Mvskoke or Creek (language) will be known,” Maxey said.

That put Maxey on a quest to find out what is it that makes the language part of the Mvskoke people.

“And what is it about this language that is precious enough that Aunt Martha would want to speak about it from these heights,” she said.

When she returned to Oklahoma to live, she discovered that at that time, around 5,000 of the 66,000 Muscogee (Creek) citizens were Mvskoke speakers.

“That struck me as also interesting,” Maxey said.

(Honey Caranzo/Reporter)

She wanted to know who the 5,000 speakers were and what they were doing in the preservation of the Mvskoke language.

She was introduced into teaching the language.

“By profession, I am a teacher,” Maxey said.

She found out that hardly anyone under the age of 50 spoke the language in a fluent or proficient manner.

“Most people were novices at it and would speak in phrases but not in sentences and conversation,” she said.

That alarmed her, so she stared helping people learn the language.

“So there is some proficiency in utilizing the language,” Maxey said.

She said the population is now over 80,000, and has about 500 fluent speakers.

“I don’t know 100 (speakers),” Maxey said. “Of course, I don’t know everybody so that counts for a lot of it.”

She knows very few speakers in the 30 to 50 age range.

Maxey had a grandchild born over a year-and-a-half ago, and she decided to teach him the Mvskoke language.

If I teach him regularly, can he become a fluent speaker?” she said. “Then the question is, ‘Who will he talk to when he does become fluent?’ ”

Maxey said the give and take of conversation has diminished. She has found five people who speak the language that she talks to on a regular basis.

“To keep that fluency and proficiency going,” she said.

Maxey said she is under contract to teach the Mvskoke language at Oklahoma State University online. She said she is the teacher of the class and Muscogee (Creek) citizen Ted Isham is the linguist.

“We teach online and Skype every week,” she said.

By invitation, she also offers a week-long instructional program through immersion.

“I have been doing this now for about seven or eight years,” Maxey said.

At her property she can accommodate up to 20 people for the immersion course.

“It has been a labor of love and an experiment at the same time,” Maxey said.

She said her goal is to help keep the language alive.

“Sharing what I know is my joy and fulfillment,” Maxey said.


Saving Native languages

A www.worldatlas.com article on endangered Native languages states approximately 300 languages were spoken in the U.S. prior to colonization. The article states 167 Native languages remain, and estimates that only 20 of those languages will still be around in 2050.

Many Nations across Indian Country are taking strides to save their Native languages and train future generations of speakers.

The Cherokee Nation has the Cherokee syllabary available for iPhones. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger estimates there are around 11,000 speakers of the Cherokee language in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Arkansas.

The Navajo Nation requires their president to be fluent in their language. UNESCO’s world language atlas estimates there are 120,000 speakers of the Navajo language in the U.S. The atlas states that in a 2011 Navajo Head Start language study, less than 28 percent of children under five speak the language.

The Chickasaw Nation offers the Rosetta Stone software to teach their language. UNESCO’s world language atlas estimates there are 600 Chickasaw language speakers, most of which are over the age of 50.

According to the FY 2017 Second Quarter Report, MCN Human Resources offers a language incentive program, which grants current employees a one-time incentive of $0.50 per hour for those who speak the Mvskoke language.

The first quarter of 2017 did not have any employees receive the incentive, but the second quarter had 19 employees.

According to the MCN Human Resources Policy and Procedures, employees must take a test on the language, which will be analyzed and certified by the Muscogee Language Qualifying Committee Chairperson.

The Mvskoke Language Program hosted a language camp June 12-16 for youth. The department also offers CDs to teach the language. Video lessons are also available at: www.mcn-nsn.gov.

The program also offers a free language app that can be downloaded through Google Play for Android phones and iTunes for Apple phones.

For more information on the program, call: 918-732-7649.

UNESCO’s world language atlas estimates there are 4,000-6,000 Creek language speakers with MCN, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Yuchi language program offers an after school program for children, community classes, a youth program and an elders class for the staff to learn from the remaining fluent speakers.

UNESCO’s world language atlas labels the Yuchi language as critically endangered and lists five speakers as of 2007.

For more information on joining the effort to preserve the language call: 918-224-7017.

View the UNESCO atlas.


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  • Steven Dunn
    June 6, 2017, 5:30 pm

    Too bad this article isn’t published in Mvskoke!

  • Merissa Freudig
    June 7, 2017, 8:39 am

    Is it possible to get in touch with Rosemary to ask about the week long emmersive class? Thanks!