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Spotlight on Programs: The Yuchi Language Project

2/11/19 in Sapulpa, OK under Culture & Language Preservation




Sapulpa, OK

At Running Strong for American Indian Youth® we focus on many priorities for Native American children and families – including food, water, warmth, and shelter – all absolute necessities for life.

But we also know how critically important it is for Native children to grow up with a knowledge and respect of their traditions and language – who they are as a people.

Today there is a commitment among Native peoples across the country not to lose traditional knowledge as elders pass on, taking part of their tribes’ hundreds of years of histories with them.

The Yuchi Language Project

Among the language and cultural programs supported by Running Strong is theYuchi Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma serving the Yuchi.

“We are working feverishly against the clock to keep alive our Yuchi language by linking our youth with remaining Elder speakers who are all in their 90s now,” says executive director Richard Grounds. “Our language is critical to our tribal ceremonies and all our traditional knowledge about medicines, history and cultural practices.

“By connecting our youth to their culture through the language they become stronger and more grounded in their identities as Native youth.”

This year marks the 23rd year of our partnership with Yuchi in support of its mission statement “to keep alive the rich heritage of the Yuchi people by creating new young speakers of our unique language through breath-to-breath immersion methods with fluent Elders and youth.”

The program takes in children as young as 3 years old into daily afterschool language immersion classes for youth up to age 18. It also includes a Master-Apprentice Program for young adults and instructors and a community language program in the evenings.

“We believe the greatest challenge facing the Yuchi community is keeping alive our unique language for future generations,” says Richard. “Our organization is dedicated to this cause but has challenges of limited funding and aging speakers. Our opportunity to work with Elders is limited due to their health and ages.

The youngest of the three fluent speakers is 92 years old, he told us in September 2017. “This means our work is of the utmost urgency.”

But thanks to the efforts of the Yuchi Language Project, in recent years it has produced at least a dozen speakers who are competent to teach the language and who are active in bringing the language back into the three active Yuchi ceremonial grounds.

“We have a clear understanding of what it takes to grow new, young speakers as we bring together Elders and youth,” he said. “The help from Running Strong empowers important program areas that would otherwise go unsupported.”

About the Yuchi People

“yUdjEha nAnô sôKAnAnô -- We Yuchi People, we are still here,” Yuchi Elder Mose Cahwee used to proclaim.

 “The beautiful part of his expression is that it is spoken in the special language that was given to us by the Creator,” said Richard. “By using the language it thereby signals in the strongest way possible, that we are still here because we are still able to speak to you in the language that you gave us.”

Yuchi is what linguists call an “isolate,” meaning it has no apparent relationship to any other language or language family, notes an article in the Tulsa World. The grammatical structure is awkward for English speakers, and, similar to many Native languages, it is more spatially oriented.

There are no books or dictionaries of the Yuchi language, except for a 100-year-old ethnography and a group of stories collected in the 1920s which Richard describes as virtually useless.

“We don’t want to preserve what was,” he told the Tulsa World. “We want to preserve what is.”

The Elders

As of December 2011, Mose had passed on and only five Elders who were raised as monolingual Yuchi speakers were still alive – Henry Washburn, Josephine Keith, Maxine Barnett, Josephine Bigler and Martha Squire – who were all in their 80s and 90s, wrote Renee Grounds in the Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine. Since 2011, Josephine Bigler, Henry Washburn, and Martha Squire have passed on.

The five chose to dedicate their last years to keeping the language alive by teaching Yuchi youth at the Yuchi House in Sapulpa.

“They are motivated by a deep sense that they are the last keepers of an ancient way of being in the world, which will be lost forever if they do not act quickly,” wrote Renee.

Washburn, known in his Yuchi name as K’asA, was the last of the elder male speakers.

“Because men and women speak differently in terms of pronouns, noun classes, and family terms, K’asA is the only person who can teach young men how to speak the male version of the Yuchi language,” wrote Renee. “Yuchi men carry the important responsibility of giving tobacco to the deceased in order to reunite them with those who have gone before them.

“This ceremony can only be conducted in the language and fortunately over the past few years K’asA has been able to teach other Yuchi men how to properly carry out this ceremony.”

On December 23, 2012, K’asA passed away at the age of 88 but his impact will be felt for generations.

Another Yuchi elder Maggie Cumsey Marsey passed away in 2008 at the age of 89.

Like Mose and and Henry, Maggie spent the last years of her life passing on her knowledge to the younger generations of Yuchi youth and adults.

“She was a gifted speaker of the Euchee language, one of the last women speakers that talked in the old way,” stated her obituary. “She was dedicated to passing forward the knowledge of her language and she had been involved in various Euchee language classes during her lifetime.”

In 1997, her language work was recognized by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The text of the award, written in Yuchi , was composed by Mose and awarded at the U.N. Celebration of the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples in Tulsa.

Maggie was particularly helpful to the Yuchi Language Project staff with the monthly oral language presentations they made to the Yuchi community. Her specialty was translating scripture, and one of her accomplishments was translating The Lord’s Prayer.

The Next Generation

Currently, one young toddler in a language immersion class is learning new Yuchi words everyday. At the age of 2, he is beginning to speak Yuchi at home and plays games with his siblings in Yuchi.

“This is the first time in 4 generations that babies have spoken Yuchi!” reported a staff member at the Yuchi Language Project.

And to the supporters of Running Strong who enable us to provide financial assistance to the Yuchi Language Project for its support year after year, Richard Grounds has this to say:

@lAk'anÔTa (we offer very large thanks!)

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