Kale Bearpaw, 4, and Alayna Brown, 5, hold pet wheels they made in the language immersion class. The text reads: “What kind of pet do you have?”

Yuchi Language Project

Kale Bearpaw, 4, and Alayna Brown, 5, hold pet wheels they made in the language immersion class. The text reads: “What kind of pet do you have?”

Racing to Save the Yuchi Language

The Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma is racing against time to preserve its Native language.

Fifteen years ago, individuals started the Yuchi Language Project, a grassroots community organization charged with reviving the language and culture by tapping into the elders’ knowledge.

Today, only four Native speakers remain, said Richard Grounds, executive director of the Yuchi Language Project and a former research professor at the University of Tulsa. An estimated 2,400 people belong to the Yuchi tribe (also known as Euchee), which is located in Sapulpa, Oklahoma.

“If you think about that in numbers, we’re talking about .002 percent of the population as first-language speakers,” Grounds said. “That’s a very small portion of the population.”

The youngest of those first-language speakers is 89, which means time is running out. The Yuchi language is considered an isolate, or unrelated to any other language in the world. If the tribe wants to preserve it—and the cultural nuances that come with it—now is the time, Grounds said.

Elder Mary Watashe teaches students how to save seeds and cook pumpkin, a traditional dish. (Yuchi Language Project)

Yuchi Language Project

Elder Mary Watashe teaches students how to save seeds and cook pumpkin, a traditional dish.

“Our great task is to try to get the elders’ knowledge, their innate appreciation for the language, culture and history,” he said. “In some ways, they embody the history. They literally have lived our culture for 100 years.”

Like most tribes, the Yuchi people lost much of their identity when leaders were killed, communities were relocated, ceremonies were suppressed and cultures were assaulted, Grounds said. Yet tribes that kept their Native languages could adapt to new environments and even thrive in difficult situations.

Language is the last thing to be stripped from Native people, Grounds said.

“I am convinced that loss of language is the biggest crisis in Indian country today,” he said. “We’re down to that last important claim on who we are. That’s the knowledge born through our language.”

Much is lost if the language disappears, said Linda Harjo, assistant manager for the Yuchi Language Project.

“The language is part of our identity,” she said. “Without it, there’s a lot that is lost. Part of our culture will be lost and some of our traditions. We can’t separate the language from the culture and tradition. It’s all encompassed together.”

Grounds helped start the language program, a non-profit, grant-funded program, in the late-1990s. His daughter, Renee Grounds, went through the program and is now considered fluent. At 27, Renee is lead instructor for the Yuchi Language Project.

“I was able to learn the language by spending time with the elders,” she said. “I’ve been involved most of my life, but it’s still my second language.”

Yuchi Language Project

Elder Mary Watashe teaches students how to save seeds and cook pumpkin, a traditional dish.

When Renee entered the program, it was a weekly community class open to all ages. Now, nearly two decades after it began, 40 children and teens ages 3 to 18 participate in after-school classes that run every day of the week.

“We feel like we’re making a lot of progress,” Renee said. “At the same time, we’ll never really be done. It’s such a big undertaking to bring back a language children haven’t spoken for 70 years.”

Students attend local public schools during the day, after which they are bused to the Yuchi Language Project to spend two hours immersed in their Native tongue. Although most students do not speak Yuchi at home, the ultimate goal is to produce a new generation of first-language speakers.

“The only thing that matters is growing new speakers,” Richard Grounds said. “We need to get to the point in time in the life of a community where we have young families raising kids who speak the language.”

Grounds points to some distinct successes since the program began—ten young adults who went through the program—Renee included—speak fluently enough to conduct classes. Another success is children who get into trouble at school for speaking the language.

“We don’t like the discrimination,” Grounds said, “but the fact that they are using the language and it’s natural to them—enough so that they’re getting in trouble for speaking their language—that’s something that hasn’t happened in our community for 60 years.”

A group of Yuchi Language Project students poses after performing at the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair in 2013. (Yuchi Language Project)

Yuchi Language Project

A group of Yuchi Language Project students poses after performing at the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair in 2013.

Perhaps the greatest success is seeing elders’ faces when children speak the language, Grounds said.

“The elders now were the last people raised speaking the language,” he said. “They’ve never seen kids talking the language.”

The Yuchi language is unique in several ways, Renee said. Like other Native languages, it includes nuances that communicate the speaker’s relationship with the Creator. It also includes syntax that describes each person as Yuchi or non-Yuchi, and objects’ relationship to the Earth. Another thing that makes the language unique is that men and women speak different forms.

Renee spends as much time as possible with the tribe’s remaining elders—all four of whom are women.

“We feel like it’s the birthright of every child to be able to speak their own language,” Renee said. “It’s our responsibility in my generation to bridge that gap, to reach to the elders and bring it down to the new ones born now. If we don’t do it, there won’t be another chance.”

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