Jason Salsman/Multimedia Producer
Generations merge, immerse in language at the Yuchi House
SAPULPA, Oklahoma — It would be hard to imagine that a 93-year-old woman and a two-year-old boy would have much in common to talk about.
But each week in the little yellow house just off of Main Street in Sapulpa, the Yuchi House, a generational gap is closed by the immersion of young and old with one common bond: the Yuchi language.
The Yuchi House is home to the Yuchi Language Project, a non-profit organization that is one of four model programs, which are part of Cultural Survival’s Native Language Revitalization Campaign.
YLP is nationally recognized for being one of the few language programs implementing immersion teaching on a daily basis. Its mission is to create new young speakers of the language through breath-to-breath immersion methods with fluent elders and children.
Elders like Maxine Wildcat Barnett and children like Chaske Ashtala Turning Heart.
Barnett, at 93, is the oldest living first language Yuchi speaker. She spends most days visiting with young people who are there every week conversing with her and instructors in hopes of keeping the culture alive.
In fact, it is a similar manner in which Barnett herself learned the language long ago.
“We had no kind of entertainment back then. This was before electricity, radio, television all this… we didn’t even have a telephone,” Barnett recalled. “So we listened to our grandmother. She would just tell and speak the language, and we would sit and listen. There were seven grandchildren in the home.”
Barnett was disconnected from her language when she went off to Chilocco Indian School. When she graduated and came back home to Sapulpa, she realized it was something she wanted to work to get back.
“Those that didn’t have to go away to school like I did, they were still here speaking the language,” Barnett said. “They’d say, ‘can you still talk?’ I’d say, ‘well, I can’t make a sentence, I know the words but I haven’t used it.’ But it’s true you can, because I miss it now and I don’t have the elders around to talk to that I used to all the time.”
Little Chaske is not only being immersed in his indigenous language at the Yuchi House, but according to his grandfather, YLP Executive Director Dr. Richard Grounds, he’s also been immersed in the language in his own home.
“He’s now two-years-old and his mother has only spoken to him in Yuchi language all of his life. She’s never uttered a single word of English to him,” Grounds said. “He gets to talk back and forth with the elders, and it’s very fun and very rewarding to have him engaging and interacting with the language.”
For Barnett, it is not only a chance to use and teach her language every week, but also a tremendous blessing to see the younger generations using and speaking Yuchi.
“We have some teenagers that can carry a conversation, and that makes me real happy knowing that they can do it and they want to learn,” Barnett said. “They learn so fast, just like him (Chaske). I just can’t believe that, its almost unbelievable. But you hear it and you see them and I just look forward every day to being with them.”
Grounds said seeing the Yuchi Language Project thrive with more young speakers learning from elders is extremely satisfying because it comes at the conclusion of fifteen years of work the organization has spent with the UN on indigenous issues.
Grounds, along with lead language instructor Ryan Hill have made trips to advocate on behalf of their efforts and it has paid off with the UN General Assembly recently adopting a resolution proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
For the organization, a range of stakeholders will be involved in the preparation of the Action Plan, which would provide guidance for a joint collaborative action by all stakeholders in order to achieve maximum coordinated impact and social change in society regarding the indigenous languages and their speakers. A large number of events relating to indigenous languages will be held, as well as a series of national and international expert meetings and initiatives will be launched around the world.
“We’ve been going to the permanent forum on indigenous issues to try and elevate our concern,” Grounds said. “It’s an opportunity to raise awareness, generate more support for our tribal languages.”
Barnett said while she loves and looks forward to each day spent talking and teaching with the children, but at 93, it definitely “tires her out.” She said it does her good because she has a purpose and her heart is happy.
“I sleep good every night,” Barnett said. “I really do.”1 comment