The Norman Transcript

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April 7, 2010

Saving Native American languages

NORMAN — The Shackleford crew of Lexington is trying to revive the dimmed life expectancy of their native Chickasaw language.

They’re not alone.

The fate of fluency in the Wichita tribe of Oklahoma wavers on the timetable of an 86-year-old woman.

“The language of our family was lost in a generation gap,” said Keith Shackleford after his four children — who are about one-quarter Native American — won for their skit performed in their native Chickasaw language in the grade 6 to 12 spoken language category. “We’re trying to reclaim that and introduce it to the kids.”

On Monday and Tuesday, 635 children across the state participated in the eighth annual Oklahoma Native American Language Fair — the largest in the country, showcasing 30 different Native languages — at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Students from public and private language programs competed in a variety of categories such as spoken word, language performance with dance or music, book, poster, Power Point language presentations and language advocacy essays.

The fair is an opportunity for students to demonstrate progress in their language learning and network with other Native American children, said Mary Linn, associate curator of Native American languages at the museum.

“If it’s cool to speak your native language, then that’s one of the most important retention factors,” Linn said, adding that while many of the languages have lost fluent speakers, they’re being taught by young people — lacking textbooks and teaching supplies — who are dedicated to restoring the languages’ vitality.

“You get these kids coming in here speaking these languages you’ve never heard on the face of the Earth,” she said.

Like Juanita Antone of the Wichita tribe’s 3- and 4-year-old girls.

Antone doesn’t speak the native language. Regretting her ignorance, she enrolled her children in Kitikiti’sh Little Sisters, an organization that teaches young girls about the Wichita tribe’s culture.

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