With expanded poetry submissions and a new comic book and cartoon category, the 11th Annual Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, or ONAYLF as it’s more commonly known, had its best year to date with 921 registered students.
The fair was held April 1-2 at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, Oklahoma.
Dr. Mary Linn, associate curator of Native American languages at the museum, has been working on the fair since the beginning and was pleased with the turnout.
“I never dreamed, well I dreamed… I could envision a day when there was so many kids and that they were really using their languages in so many new and creative ways,” she told KGOU Radio. “That’s what I wanted. But at first it was hard to envision that there would be that kind of enthusiasm with the younger kids because it did take a while for people, for younger kids to really feel comfortable.”
And that level of comfort has shown in the categories that are beginning to get more attention. Youth are singing lullabies in Choctaw, performing disco hits in Cherokee, and one group performed “My Girl” in Chickasaw.
“This song was pretty easy,” one of the girls told KFOR News Channel 4. “It just had basic words over and over.”
Another area the comfort level with their languages is really showing is in the poetry category. Linn says that category has grown over previous years.
“We had representatives in each age category that turned in written poetry that also got up and spoke,” Linn, told KGOU. “And poetry is often seen as being too hard or somehow too nerdy, but I think poetry works really, really well with Native languages and Native language learners. So I was really proud of the kids that got up and recited their poetry and I thought they did a beautiful job.”
A new addition to this year’s categories was comic books and cartoons, which Linn found amusing.
“We had some really fun comic books that were just really hilarious,” Linn told KGOU. “What you’d expect high school kids thinking about during the day but, of course, with that Native sense of humor that you can’t get anywhere else.”
This event has been helping keep more than 20 languages alive and that’s been Linn’s goal.
“I didn’t want to show that language was just something that we collected and put on a shelf,” Linn told KFOR. “I wanted to show that languages are living things, that unless there are people using them and speaking them, you don’t even know if you can really call them a language.”
The participants also see their role in preserving their respective languages as well. Katy Shackelford, 16, has been participating in the fair with her younger brother Dale since 2004. "We speak Chickasaw words every day, even if it's not necessarily whole conversations," she said. "You can't really get rid of who you are. A lot of things that we do with the tribe, with our culture."
The new category next year will be skateboard art featuring Native languages, which Linn thinks is a good direction to get more youth involved.
“A couple of years ago there was more resistance by some elders to use language in tag art or in those kinds of new ways but I think that's really going away,” she told KGOU. “Elders really see that the enthusiasm for use of the language is infectious and it really can’t and shouldn’t be stopped… If children want to use the language in whatever way that’s respectful and tag art, of course, and skateboard art, can be very respectful as well. Then we should let them do it.”