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In addition to providing basic needs – food, coats and boots, school supplies, and more to Native people throughout Indian Country, a core mission of Running Strong for American Indian Youth® has long been to support programs that preserve languages and culture before they are lost to the ages.
Among them in the Euchee Yuchi Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. The Yuchi Tribe are a small band of American Indians who were forcibly removed by the federal government from their native homelands in the southeast region of Georgia.
Though they are separated from their homeland, they have maintained their cultural ways and continue to practice their traditions.
The mission of the Yuchi Language Project is “to keep alive the rich heritage of the Yuchi people by creating new young speakers of the unique language through breath-to-breath immersion methods with fluent elders and children.”
While all Native languages should be preserved, Yuchi is an incredibly unique language. Linguistic experts consider it to be an “isolate” language, meaning that it did not derive from any other language or cultural group.
Thanks to the supporters of Running Strong, we have been able to support the organization’s language immersion program for many years using grant funding to class supplies, payroll for instructional staff, Elder honoraria and apprentice stipends.
“The grant has been used to directly facilitate the implementation of an effective daily immersion program for children and youth,” reported project administrator Halay Turning Heart (Yuchi).
“It is our practice to give our Yuchi students tribal names which connects them to their identity in ways they would not otherwise have access, she explained. “One of our new learners is only age 3 and was recently given a Yuchi name for the first time — gOdaba, which means strong man.
“He is very proud of his name and uses it all the time. Every morning in our opening routine we ask him “wEg@nzATE?” and he answers confidently: “gOdaba A zATE!” (my name is gOdaba). His 3 older siblings also received Yuchi names and the program has had a big impact on their family this year. Prior to their enrollment they didn’t have much interaction with the Yuchi language or culture.
“We are proud of all of our students and the opportunity to boost their self-esteem through the Yuchi language.”
Halay also reported that they continue to work with the last remaining fully fluent elder, gOlaha (Grandmother) Maxine Barnett, 93, while working to expand language project members’ own skills as speakers and instructors so that they can successfully carry on the Yuchi language work.
“As the matriarch of the Yuchi language, gOlaha Maxine is an inspiring and amazing woman. We call her gOlaha because she is like a grandmother to all the children in the Yuchi Language Project,” Halay wrote in an article published in the March 2019 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly.
In 2019, she noted several program accomplishments, including:
1.Our staff and youth participated in the 2019 United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages at the UN in New York (UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Languages) and helped do a language training for language learners from around the world.
2. We hosted the 8th Annual Yuchi Knowledge Bowl a successful event showcasing the language learning of Yuchi youth
3. During ‘EaPAnE (Yuchi Green Corn Ceremonies) four of our youth learners gave Yuchi language presentations at the ceremonial grounds.
4. The youth received several top awards, including first place, at the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair
5. We planted a butterfly garden with three kinds of plants to support pollinators and a butterfly habitat.
6. We held a Wild Onion Dinner for the community – youth harvested the wild onions and learned how to prepare traditional foods – was a good way to teach traditional foods and a healthy diet
7. We had a large Honoring event for fluent Elder Maxine Wildcat Barnett who was raised by her grandmother speaking Yuchi
“For more than 100 years, under immense oppression, our Yuchi people have been counting down the number of Yuchi speakers with fewer speakers each year,” Halay wrote. “The decline of the language has been from about 24 native speakers 20 years ago, to 6 speakers five years ago, to now only 1 fully fluent elder speaker.
“But for the first time in the long history of overcoming oppression, including the so-called Trail of Tears, government boarding schools, and English-only legislation, we are finally counting forward and adding first language speakers to the list.”
Halay added that “the children in our gOnE (baby) classes are the first native Yuchi speakers in four generations.
“They are rebuilding a Yuchi speaking community that they have never seen, but that our elders once lived. Our ancestors have brought our language this far, and now it is up to us to bring it home.
“yUdjEha gO’wAdAnA-A n@ wElA nô! (Our Yuchi language will not die)”
“s@nlA k’ayasOTa (thank you!) — your funding support means a lot to our Yuchi youth and community!”