Tribal nations ramp up, reflect on language preservation efforts after American Rescue Plan allocation

Nancy Marie Spears - Gaylord News
A Choctaw language session.

Justin Neely, director of language for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, grew up among elders who told him that if the Potawatomi language is lost, so are the Potawatomi people.

Now, the tribal elders who speak those Native American languages are dying from COVID-19 and COVID-complications at much higher rates than white populations.

Neely compared the death of a speaker to a library burning down. He said there are seven unique tribes of Potawatomi in the United States, and among all Potawatomi there were fewer than 10 first-language speakers left going into the pandemic. Due to COVID-19, some of those might have died in the past year.

A first-language speaker is someone who grew up speaking a tribal language. Second-language speakers learned a native tongue as a second language.

The COVID-relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan, which allocates $31 billion to the tribes nationwide, will set aside $20 million to help Native American nations preserve their languages. Native language preservation funding is designed to help assure the survival of tribal cultures, spiritual identities and forms of traditional communication.

Normally, tribes must compete with the other 574 federally-recognized tribes — along with colleges, museums and youth centers that teach native languages — for federal funding that targets language preservation.

There are no fluent Arapaho speakers left in Oklahoma, said Arapaho Lead Apprentice James Sleeper, and there might be as few as 10 to 15 first-language Cheyenne speakers left.

Teresa Billy, assistant director of education services for the Choctaw Nation, said, “We have less than 1,000 first-language speakers, our loss (during the pandemic) has been approximately 100 first-language speakers out of a population of 200,000 tribal members. This could very well be defined as a crisis for the preservation of our language.”

Tribes are often oral societies, Neely said, and because not every speaker is knowledgeable on every aspect of the culture, losing just one speaker leaves an everlasting hole in the tribes’ cultures, communities and identities.

“You know, one (speaker) might be an avid fisherman and knows lots of terminology and concepts to deal with fishing, one might be an avid basketmaker,” Neely said. “One might be a gardener and know different terminologies for certain plants. Or somebody who deals with medicine and knows different herbs and ways to treat different ailments. So, you know, just losing one speaker has a devastating effect on Native people.”

Funding, or lack of it, is what Shawnee language director Joel Barnes said was most likely the detriment to Native Nations’ language programs of the past. He said the tribe would like to use the language allocations to first and foremost pay employees, not volunteers, for their work in preserving the language.

“It amazes me, after creating a budget, how much it takes to put on what I would call a successful language program,” Barnes said. “And I really think that's been the failure with a lot of tribes in the language programs, why they've tried to start up and they've collapsed — because they just simply did not have the funding to do what was necessary in order to achieve success within the language program.”

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Oklahoma tribes making plans to use American Rescue Plan funds in Native language programs

Tribal leaders across Oklahoma say they are looking forward to seeing how American Rescue Plan funds for language preservation are distributed.

“We could use the money, whether it be making more programming for our kids, puppet shows, things like that,” said Justin Neely, director of language for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

“Or maybe doing something with remote learning. There's a lot of different ways that we could use that money to just enhance our delivery of language. I’d love to make a video game in Potawatomi -- I’d love to make an app in Potawatomi.”

Jillian Curtis, director of the Indian Health Service’s office of finance and accounting, said during a telephone call with journalists that they expect to begin allocations soon, but the first step is consulting each tribe to find out how they want the money distributed.

Rebecca Risenhoover, Cheyenne and Arapaho language director, said she and Arapaho Lead Apprentice James Sleeper are already thinking of ways to use the ARP money in their language program. She said they are unique in that they teach two separate languages: Cheyenne and Arapaho.

Risenhoover said they plan to hire new apprentices to “generate new conversationally, fluent speakers.”

“In order to have learners, we have to have speakers. In order to have teachers, we have to have speakers,” Sleeper said. “And then there’s equipment too, like our elders need Internet. They need recorders so they can record themselves.”

“I think it's just nice to finally be recognized that we (all Native Nations) have different languages,” Risenhoover said. “And it's important to each tribe that they continue with their languages. English shouldn't always be that first language for anybody, especially for Natives.”

Risenhoover said the funds could help smaller tribes establish language programs and get started on their own efforts to preserve, revive and maintain their languages.

“This country’s policies towards Native American people have taken away our languages,” Sleeper said. “Our cultures are suffering because of their policies. And now they’re helping us get our languages back.”

Tribal nations have had to scramble to keep language classes operational amid the back-and-forth of public school instruction and other complications from COVID-19. Some tribes including the Choctaw Nation have conducted virtual classes.

The Shawnee tribe declared 2020 the Year of the Shawnee Language, and went a step further and made the years 2021-2030 the decade of the Shawnee language. Out of that came the Community Language Preservationist (CLP) Program, created to generate speakers and teachers, said Shawnee Language Department Director Joel Barnes.

The tribe has established a budget for a 10-year language teaching curriculum and increased its staff to five people which includes a first language speaker, a linguist and curriculum development specialists.

“These are efforts to not just elevate the conversation about Shawnee language, but also to affirm UNESCO's initiative of their International Year of Indigenous Languages as well as the upcoming International Decade of Indigenous Languages,” Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes said.

“We're spending more than $40 per year for every enrolled citizen of the Shawnee tribe on language,” Chief Barnes said. “We're spending more per tribal citizen than perhaps any other tribe in the nation that we pledge for our citizens. That's how serious we take language preservation.”