The Oklahoma Breath of Life — Silent No More program recently received a $90,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to hold another weeklong workshop next year.
The first workshop was held last summer at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. It was designed to give participants the tools to help revitalize endangered Native American languages.
National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project lists Oklahoma as a language hotspot—an area with many languages near extinction. “Oklahoma boasts the highest density of indigenous languages in the United States,” says the project’s website. “This hotspot includes languages originally spoken in the region, as well as those of tribes from farther east that were forcibly relocated onto reservations here.”
Jim Hopper, director of the Otoe-Missouria Youth Leadership Department, attended the Breath of Life workshop held last year because he fears tribal youth are facing an identity crisis. “They want to know what it means to be Otoe-Missouria, but they don’t understand the tribe’s native language,” he told The Oklahoman.
He attended the workshop to better prepare himself to help the youth of his tribe learn the language. According to The Oklahoman, he only knew a few words before attending the workshop, he now posts words around his home for his 7 and 2 year olds to see and incorporates the language into youth programs he organizes.
“If we don’t get youth involved now, then it will be gone forever,” Hopper told The Oklahoman.
Hutke Fields, another 2010 workshop participant agrees. “We’ll lose it if we don’t use it,” he told The Oklahoman. Fields, principal chief of the Natchez Indians, said Breath of Life helped his community computerize a dictionary so Natchez people in South Carolina can practice with their counterparts in Oklahoma.
The program is able to continue thanks to the grant-writing efforts of Mary Linn, associate curator of Native American languages at the Sam Noble Museum, and Colleen Fitzgerald, chairman of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Department of Linguistics and Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Fitzgerald said UT Arlington is creating linguistic databases that will enable the creation of online dictionaries—like the one for the Natchez—that will help revitalize the many endangered Native languages.
Oklahoma Breath of Life was modeled after a program at the University of California, Berkeley, where a biannual workshop is held for California Indians whose languages have no fluent speakers.
The next Oklahoma Breath of Life workshop will be held May 20 to 25, 2012. Linn hopes more than the eight participants from Natchez, Osage and Otoe-Missouria attend. She also wants the program to become self-supporting.
“They may be silent, but they can be spoken again,” she told The Oklahoman.