Today is December 29, 2010. Twenty years ago I invited to be was part of a ceremony commemorating the centennial of the Wounded Knee Massacre. In the cold night, we gathered for the inipi. At least two of the men were descendants of those who were there on that awful day. The ground was frozen solid, and the first seven red hot rocks did little more then to fall the ground into cold mud. It was like we were being rebuilt from the ground up; whatever other terrors that day had seen, we could now identify with the frozen ground and the very real possibility of death by freezing.
This week I began to see how many names I could remember, reaching out those who had participated that day in 1990. It was a small intertribal group, perhaps a dozen or so participants. As I had expected, in 20 years several of the people had crossed over. I just found today that the ceremonial leader is alive and well.
In the past 20 years, I’ve learned much more about the events of the Massacre, including errors of judgment on both sides over the preceding month. I have learned of the aftermath, of reprisals on both sides. And I have learned much more about the ceremony that was at least nominally at the center of it all.
Not freezing to death in the winter is one marker of physical survival. Continuing to speak a language that was targeted for extinction is another. Today, there are about 40,000 Sioux (Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota), about 14,000 of whom can speak the language. Despite all that has been thrown at them, they endure.
A news story was recirculated this week about Apple enabling the iPhone for Cherokee language. Deep in the story was an appreciation by Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He spoke of how will this would be received by the 8,000 fluent speakers in the Cherokee Nation, and what this could mean to promote the new generation to use the language.
|Chief Smith in 2002|
Fifteen years ago, I began teaching the language in live monthly classes in a church in New Jersey. I wasn’t fluent then, and I’m not fluent now, but I believe that we can’t wait, that each of us has to do what we can, now. People would drive from as far as Albany, New York and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the chance to learn the language that their grandparents had been forbidden. At that time, the Cherokee Nation boasted 15,000 fluent speakers. In some of the teaching materials we used, which were almost 20 years old, it referred to 20,000 fluent speakers. When I traveled to Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 2002 and met several of the people from the Cultural Affairs Office, and with Chief Smith, they had just made a disturbing discovery. There were 10,000 fluent speakers, and yet testing of children just starting school showed that none were fluent, and few heard any Cherokee spoken of home. What could be the source of this contradiction?
They looked deeper, and found that there was not a fluent speaker in the CNO under age 40. Do the math – that would mean extinction of the language in another generation. Emergency plans were implemented to make Cherokee language available to all Cherokee elementary students. After eight years of intense efforts, there are 2,000 fewer speakers. It would be easy to look quickly and say “the program isn’t working”. But it’s likely that most of the loss is from fluent Elders crossing, something no governmental program or tribal program can stop. In other words, it could have been worse.
Survival takes many forms. It may be physical, spiritual, cultural, community, tribal/ethnic, environmental, or global.
What commitment do you make, what action do you take, to see that the Cherokee language survives and thrives for the next generations?
Before I forget, there are only three days left for the holiday specials. You can save $93.00 for a full year of SpeakCherokee language instruction.
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Sta yu (be strong / hang tough / endure)