Published Online: August 4, 2008

Saving Oneida Language Becomes a Full Time Job

Heath Hill looks forward to the day when all ceremonies in the Oneida Indian Nation Longhouse can once again be held in the native language spoken by someone from his upstate New York tribe.

"We used to have to pay people to come out here and help us," said the 32-year-old Hill. "I didn't really care for that. We want to be able to do it for ourselves."

"I want to raise my family in the traditional ways but it's hard when you can't even speak your own language," said Hill, who along with his girlfriend are among eight tribal members finishing up a unique two-year program to learn the Oneida language.

Indian tribes across the country are taking steps to preserve their native languages. The Oneida Indian Nation of New York has made it a full-time job, paying tribal members what they would earn in other jobs to immerse themselves in the nation's spoken word.

"We've had language programs here for a long time," said Sheri Beglen, a teacher in the Oneida's program. "But they were once a week for adults, or a half-hour after school for kids. You just can't learn a language one day a week.

"To learn a language, you have to hear it, use it constantly," said Beglen, who was among the first eight graduates of the Oneida program, now in its fourth year.

Gerald Hill, president of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., said while virtually all the more than 300 recognized American Indian tribes have some type of language program, they vary dramatically in approach and effectiveness. Hill said he was unaware of any other tribes paying members to learn the language as a full-time job.

"There is a tremendous vitality and hunger for culture and language expression. There is no longer shame in speaking your native language," Hill said.

The deeper the immersion, the more likely the success, added Hill, a Wisconsin Oneida who is no relation to Heath Hill.

"Some programs are merely for show, to teach a few words," he said. "It is the ones that strive for normal, conversational, functional language that hold the best hope."

Unfortunately, Hill said, in mostly all programs, native language is taught as a second language to English; unlike bygone generations, when Indians learned English as a second language.

Hill said nearly all indigenous languages are threatened by the world's dominant languages, such as English, Spanish, French and Chinese.

"There are many communities that haven't had first language speakers for generations," Hill said.

Without intervention, linguistic experts have predicted there could be fewer than two dozen spoken Indian languages left by 2050.

In 2006, President Bush signed the Esther Martinez Native Languages Preservation Act, named after a Tewa storyteller and linguist who helped preserve her native language. Congress responded with funding to establish tribal "language nests" for young children, and language restoration programs and native language instruction materials.

Among tribes with revival programs under way are the Dakota, Mandan, Tewa, Nanticoke and Ojibwe.

The Oneidas, though, are relying on their own resources, funding their program through casino and business profits.

Classes run six hours a day, four days a week in a small room at the Oneida's cultural center. On Friday, students meet for three hours.

With the help of Ray George, a Canadian Oneida whose first language is Oneida, the tribe worked with Berlitz Languages to develop a 40-chapter curriculum. The 130-year-old Berlitz Method requires all instruction to be given in the target language and in the context of real-life situations.

Although the Oneida language has only 14 letters — six vowels and eight consonants — and a small inventory of sound, it is a complex language.

The Oneidas' use compound words that express an entire concept, rather than the English way of using several words to say the same thing. There are 15 forms of people and groups that change how the same word is said, each with its own variation for past, present and future tenses, creating an extensive and complex system of word formation.

"It's an ongoing process. I'm not sure I will ever be fluent," said Mary Blau, 50, who gave up her waitress job at the tribe's casino to take the class. Hill worked for the tribe's facilities department and has a heavy equipment operator's license. Both aspire to teach the language.

Five of the eight members of the first two-year class are presently teaching Oneida, including Beglen. The tribe's ultimate goal is ambitious — to teach Oneida to all 1,200 tribal members in New York.

For most of their long history, the Oneidas relied on oral tradition. It wasn't until the 19th century that they began writing down their language using the English alphabet.

But the tribe was scattered after the Revolutionary War, with a few Oneidas staying in New York and the majority moving to Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. All three Oneida communities have language preservation projects. The Wisconsin tribe is in the process of creating an online dictionary and has developed a 165-page teaching manual.

By the mid-20th century, the Oneida language was dying out rapidly. Like many other tribes, Oneida parents reluctantly encouraged their children to speak only English, believing it would help them be accepted into society and succeed economically.

Today, it is estimated that fewer than 250 people speak fluent Oneida, most of those in Canada and only a handful in upstate New York, the tribe's ancestral home, according to Ethnologue, a language database. Of that number, the overwhelming majority are older adults.

"I didn't know my grandmother but she was a fluent speaker. My parents spoke only a few words," said Beglen, whose adult children can speak some Oneida and who speaks Oneida to her grandson. "That's how fast a language can be lost, from one generation to the next."

"You can say you're Indian and all that," added George. "But when somebody says 'Do you know any words in your native tongue?' Well, if you can't speak it, you have pretty much lost your identity as a native person."

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