‘Race against time’: Pandemic propels fight to save Native American languages
The news of Maxine Wildcat Barnett’s Covid hospitalization in November shook the Yuchi community of Sapulpa, a small Oklahoma city named after its first settler, a Creek Native American. At 95, Barnett is the last tribal elder who speaks the Yuchi language fluently — which means she’s one of the few remaining links to a culture her tribe is fighting to preserve.
Barnett eventually recovered, but her illness exacerbated fears the language would become extinct — something the Yuchi Language Project is pushing to prevent from happening.
“She literally has lived the language,” said Richard A. Grounds, the project’s executive director. “The Yuchi language lives in her heart, in her mind, in her tongue. All of that is part of the richness of the heritage that she has as a first-language speaker.”
Barnett is vital to the survival of the Yuchi language. It has no dictionary or written materials, with scant recordings of native speakers. And the language differs from many other indigenous languages in that it is an isolate, meaning it’s not related to any other in the world, which makes its preservation that much more precarious.
But the struggle to preserve it is not unique. Tribes across the country are battling to save more than 150 endangered indigenous languages, as they face a pandemic that has killed American Indians at nearly twice the rate of white Americans. The deaths are a significant blow to these communities, whose cultures and ways of life are often inextricably tied to their languages, which are rapidly dying out.
Tribal leaders lobbied lawmakers, warning about Covid’s disparate impact on their tribal elders, and by extension, their culture and languages. And last month, lawmakers on the Hill responded by incorporating $20 million for Native American languages into the latest coronavirus relief package, something that hadn’t been addressed in previous iterations of aid. In the past, Covid relief to Native communities has been slow to arrive. This time around, lawmakers are hoping the funding will reach these communities quickly in the form of federal grants to fund projects like digitizing language resources, training more teachers and developing online courses.
The funding is part of more than $31 billion headed for Indian Country, which Senate Indian Affairs Chair Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) billed as “the biggest one-time investment in U.S. history” for Native communities.
But not everyone thought the language funding was a good idea. Some GOP lawmakers and conservative interest groups took offense at including it in a Covid relief package, which Democrats ultimately muscled through Congress using the arcane Senate process of budget reconciliation after Republican efforts to stall the legislation. Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) said the House bill was full of “Democrat pork” and called funding for Native languages one of “the most egregious provisions,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took to the Senate floor to voice his displeasure.
“There’s $20 million in the bill for the preservation and maintenance of Native American languages,” Graham said at the time. “That might be something that makes sense, but we’re dealing with a Covid package.”
‘It’s like losing the entire library’
Like the Yuchi, the Potawatomi people of the Midwest also feel the brunt of Covid on their elders. Before the pandemic, there were eight first-language Potawatomi speakers. Today, that number has been cut in half.
The loss of each Potawatomi-speaking elder is devastating, said Justin Neely, the director of the Oklahoma-based Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s language department. Each one had special linguistic knowledge based on their interests: Basket makers used specific terms to talk about their work, as did those who fished or worked with medicine.
“When you lose a speaker like that, it’s like losing the entire library, like a library burning down,” he said. “So these losses that we’ve had from losing speakers has been really hard.”
Wilhelm Meya, the executive director of the Language Conservancy, an Indiana-based nonprofit that works with indigenous languages around the world, said many young Native Americans want to learn their languages. But, he said, they often lack the resources to do so. His organization partners with tribal elders to create dictionaries, which can be used to develop language-learning apps for the next generation.
As Covid spread, more than 35 speakers his group has worked with have died, he said, which has accelerated the urgency. Now, four to five years of work might need to be completed in one or two.
“It’s really… a race against time to protect and preserve these languages, so young people have a chance to speak it,” he said.
But to preserve their languages, these tribes and the organizations that support their efforts say they need funding. With the recently passed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, more money will be on its way in the coming months.
On a recent Wednesday in Santo Domingo, N.M., second gentleman Douglas Emhoff met with tribal governors at a health center as part of the Biden administration’s “Help is Here” tour to tout the more than $31 billion in aid targeted for Native communities.
The money will address problems exacerbated by the pandemic, such as the dearth of broadband access, health care and access to potable water. And it will include the $20 million specifically set aside in emergency Covid grants for Native American language maintenance and preservation.
At the event, Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo told Emhoff that cultural leaders were being prioritized for the vaccine, a step that other tribes like the Cherokee Nation have taken to push their language speakers to the front of the line.
“These culture keepers, elders, and speakers hold in their talents and memories so much of our priceless Cherokee heritage, but they have sadly been hit the hardest by the pandemic,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a December announcement. “We must defend every elder so they can pass down essential cultural lessons to our younger generations.”
Dispatching Emhoff was one of several actions the Biden administration has taken to reach out to Native communities, which had an antagonistic relationship with the Trump White House over public lands decisions and coronavirus aid.
And Native Americans now have an ally in the Cabinet: Biden tapped Deb Haaland, the former New Mexico representative, to be Interior secretary. An enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, she is the first-ever Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.
Even in legislation, there’s been a noted difference. The Covid relief package featured language that equated tribes with states and municipalities for certain funding opportunities. This wasn’t the case in the 2009 stimulus legislation that addressed the Great Recession, which instead set aside small pots of money for tribes.
“It sets a huge precedent treating Indian tribes on par with state and local governments, and giving them a fair share set aside of that larger part of the fiscal recovery funds,” said John Harte, a former policy director for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “From a policy aspect, that’s monumental.”
Civil War leader Pratt: ‘Kill the Indian, save the man’
Tribal leaders argue the funding for Native languages is necessary, given the role the U.S. government played in bringing about their rapid decline through forced assimilation efforts.
Barnett, the Yuchi elder, was born in Sapulpa, about 12 miles southwest of Tulsa, Okla., in 1925. The third of five children, she learned English at a local school, but at home, her grandmother Eliza insisted that she speak Yuchi.
She was later sent to Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a boarding school near the Oklahoma-Kansas border, where her older sister was. There, she spoke only English, mandated by government efforts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society by systematically eradicating their languages.
For some, it was hell. But others, like Barnett, say they’re grateful for the skills they learned which prepared them to get jobs and enter mainstream American life. What’s indisputable, however, is the devastating effect it had on Native languages.
To re-learn her language, Barnett said she spent hours standing in front of the mirror, repeating different words and stringing them together into sentences.
“I kept saying it over and over until it sounded right,” she said in an interview. “And sure enough, it all came together. I’m just thankful I didn’t give up.”
The Indian boarding schools, often government-run and off-reservation, critics say, imbued many of its pupils with a sense of internalized shame over using their languages. The consequence of these schools: Whole generations of Native speakers lost their languages.
The first of them, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, opened in 1879 at an old Pennsylvania military post and was led by Richard Henry Pratt, who fought in the Civil War. There, students were forced to cut their hair and change their names. Many faced harsh physical and psychological abuse. Pratt’s motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Similar schools, operated by the government and by churches, took Carlisle as a model. Tens of thousands passed through their doors. Children as young as five were forcibly removed from their families and sent to these schools. Those caught speaking their Native languages often had their mouths washed out with soap. Some never made it back home.
“The message was very clear: Your language is dirty, your language is unclean, your language is unwholesome. We’ve got to wash that out of your mouth,” Grounds said. His grandmother went to an Indian boarding school and, because of her experiences there, refused to let his father speak the Yuchi language.
To members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the tribes’ plight to save their languages is not new. For decades, lawmakers have tried to address the issue with legislation, including the Native American Languages Act in 1990, which affirmed the right to use Native languages, even in public schools.
And over the past year, as the coronavirus hit American shores, tribal leaders began lobbying Congress with concerns over the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on their peoples, as well as their languages, according to a senior Senate aide who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
“The Pueblo worldview is contained in our languages,” Vallo, the Acoma Pueblo governor, told the Indian Affairs committee in December. “Our Native languages are the adhesive that holds our cultural, religious and traditional beliefs together and enables those beliefs to be passed on.”
At the same time, obituaries were pouring in, with one report after another detailing a death of a fluent Native language speaker. It was clear something more needed to be done, the aide said.
Armed with his new gavel and perch atop the committee, Schatz advocated for dedicating funding for Native American languages during negotiations for the stimulus package. That’s something that wasn’t included in previous Covid relief legislation. His request, the aide said, was met with broad support from Democratic leadership in both chambers, even though GOP lawmakers pushed back.
In the end, Schatz secured $10 million in emergency grants for the cause. That number later doubled after the Congressional Budget Office said there was more money left to be allocated.
Because of Covid, the demand for what Native American language programs have to offer has “skyrocketed,” Schatz told POLITICO, adding that he expected the funding would help “ensure Native languages can continue to thrive.”
Meanwhile, the committee is planning on an oversight hearing in the coming weeks that will look at the impact of Covid on Native American education and language, the aide said.
‘A down payment’
The new emergency grants are a significant boost to what’s currently available from the Administration for Native Americans, the office tasked with distributing the money. Its support for Native languages is one of the largest — and also most competitive — funding sources available to help tribes.
In a given year, ANA provides about $14 million toward language funding, said Michelle Sauve, the office’s acting commissioner. (Other funding opportunities exist within the federal government, but ANA’s offerings are among the most significant, according to those who seek the funding.)
Sauve said ANA currently funds 55 language projects. Last year, it received 83 applications for language funding and approved 11 of those, according to data from the office.
Grounds, of the Yuchi Language Project, said the ANA language grants are a “major resource” but criticized the application process as “onerous,” especially for smaller outfits like his, which often lack the resources to hire professional grant writers and the time to attend seminars on navigating the process — without a guarantee of success.
The previous rollout of coronavirus relief to Indian Country was plagued with delays, an issue Congress sought to address in the latest round of relief. The emergency grants are exempt from the existing grants’ application requirements, according to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
What’s more, ANA is considering lowering the amount each organization receives so more groups can benefit from the funding, said Grounds, who participated in an ANA call on disbursing the funds.
But even with this fresh infusion, those who need the money and those supplying it agree that it isn’t enough. Schatz has called the funding a “down payment.” Tribal members and language advocates described it as a drop in the bucket, when compared to the overall $1.9 trillion.
Many point to the Indian boarding schools and the effect it had on Native languages as justification for more federal funding. Meya, of the Language Conservancy, said the federal government spent $2.81 billion on the Indian boarding school system between 1877 and 1920, when adjusted for inflation.
“There’s never enough, because there’s so much that has to be done and so little time,” said Neely, the Potawatomi director.
Still, he said, every bit helps.
‘All hope is not lost’
During the pandemic, tribes have embraced different ways to engage in language learning efforts, as social distancing rules have complicated their usual approaches, which often included close, sometimes daily, contact with fluent tribal elders.
Zoom sessions have replaced classrooms, and students now flock to online quiz platforms, such as Quizlet and Kahoot.
“It’s not really ideal, but we do feel like we’re keeping people connected,” Grounds said.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation was well positioned to adapt to a virtual world even before the pandemic, Neely said. Only a third of tribal members live in the state, while others live as far away as California. So Neely and his team created a self-paced online course, which launched in 2015, with ANA support. On YouTube, they’ve dubbed Potawatomi in films and cartoons in the public domain, such as 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.”
Students stay in touch on Facebook with some of the remaining first-language speakers, who are all over 80, in a group that’s grown to more than 5,000 members, Neely said. There, he hosts live classes, which the platform archives for people to watch later.
It’s a useful resource for students to ask questions, solicit feedback and teach others new words. After St. Patrick’s Day, one member posted some helpful phrases — “I did not wear green yesterday” — in the Potawatomi language.
For Grounds, the pandemic is making learning more difficult because of the emphasis the Yuchi Language Project places on face-to-face communication and language immersion. Pre-Covid, a lot of time was spent learning by doing, with students gathering wild onions, preparing squirrel meat and making blowguns, all while conversing in Yuchi.
Now, learners are uploading videos of them speaking Yuchi while doing various tasks around the house, such as changing diapers. Parents were recruited to help home-school their children with language materials mailed to their houses. There are currently about 20 second-language Yuchi speakers, as well as a handful of elders with some fluency with the language.
Barnett, who loves to sing in Yuchi and tell stories, is still helping out via Zoom with the Yuchi Language Project, where she is affectionately called “gOlaha,” or grandmother. Even with Covid, Grounds said he tries to visit Barnett in person so he can check on her — and chat in Yuchi. It’s his way of thanking her for passing on her knowledge and cultural experiences, from one generation to the next.
“She carries that rich heritage of the culture from those ancient times into the present in a way that’s not fully discernible without her immediate presence,” he said.
For those working to preserve these languages, they’re cleareyed about the difficulties they face ahead. Time is not on their side. But they’re also hopeful.
These days, Grounds’ grandchildren are growing up with the language — “a major breakthrough,” he said. Meanwhile, Neely said he speaks to his kids in Potawatomi “all the time.” It’s a small-scale effort, but also a step toward creating more first-language speakers for tribes that are rapidly losing them.
“All hope is not lost, and we’re definitely progressing,” Neely said. “Every day, getting better and better.”