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Elders of Oneida Tribe Try to Preserve Their Language - 2004-09-05

Off and on for 25 years, elders of the Oneida Indian Nation of about 1000 people in New York State have tried to teach the ancient Oneida language to their children. The young people have learned enough for rituals, and not much more. Only about 150 true Oneida speakers remain in the tribe's three enclaves in the United States and Canada. So, as VOA's Ted Landphair reports, the Oneidas are taking a drastic step to save their dying language.

As anyone who's tried to learn a language can tell you, just memorizing lists of vocabulary words doesn't work very well. Oneida young people studied and studied, only to forget most of what they learned when they stepped back into a world awash in English. Tribal elders concluded that only serious language immersion would work. They turned for help outside the nation, to the Berlitz organization, which employs its trademark Berlitz Method at four hundred language centers in more than sixty countries.

Richard Van Vliet is the instruction supervisor at the Berlitz office in Rochester. He's developing a textbook and a guide to show the Oneidas how to teach THEMSELVES their own language.

"This language is very difficult, because what they do is incorporate nouns inside of verbs," he explains. "Let's say that I want to say, 'I see the cat.' You take the word 'see' and put 'cat' in between the three letters. You'd have an 's, c-a-t,' and then an 'e-e.' It makes it very difficult to learn."

Brian Patterson is an elder of the Bear Clan, one of four in the Oneida Indian Nation. Mr. Patterson says when the government imposed U.S. citizenship on all Indians early in the 20th century, it took Indian children from their homes and placed them in boarding schools where it was forbidden to speak any language but English.

"A whole generation of our people missed their language," says Mr. Patterson. "And so now we're struggling to catch up. I heard a linguist say one time, 'There are no dead languages. They are just sleeping.' The first Oneida word that I learned, I was watching a Saturday-morning cartoon in which these human-looking monkeys were dancing around a fire, yelling 'OH-tuh, OH-tuh, OH-tuh.' And my mother came into the living room. She was just laughing. I couldn't understand why she was laughing at these monkeys yelling 'OH-tuh, OH-tuh, OH-tuh.' Well that's kind of a swear word in Oneida."

Bear clan mother Marilyn John took some of the old lessons on the Oneida reserve, recitations that were practically useless in everyday life.

"The language has a different meaning when you speak it to one another than English," she notes. "When we have our ceremonies down at our long house, or our council house, it means so much more if it's in the language than it does in English. Just talking about Mother Earth. You just can't put in English what that means."

Norma Jamieson is a Canadian Oneida and one of the last remaining Oneida speakers. She was a language teacher in the old days, and now she's starting over, the Berlitz way, with lots of full sentences, role-playing, and repetition. Today's lesson for the VOA audience: a chair is not just a chair.

"'Chair' is 'uh-NEETS-squah-huh-LUCK-quah' in Oneida. And 'uh-NEETS-squah-huh-LUCK-quah' means, 'You put your backside onto the chair': 'uh-NEETS-squah-huh-LUCK-quah.' And that's what 'chair' means: 'You set yourself on it.' The action involved," explains Ms. Jamieson.

Sherri Beglin and Sunny Shenandoah are two of the eight Oneidas now learning their own complex language from Norma Jamieson and another instructor. It's not a class. This is their full-time job, all day, every day for a year. They are paid by the tribe to do it, so they're sure to be motivated.

"I've dreamt it. People have told me I'm sleeping when I'm saying it," she says. "There have been a few times, like when I answer the phone or I talk to people, I just automatically speak to them in Oneida without even thinking. I even talk to my cat in Oneida!"

Whenever Sunny Shenandoah's grandmother spoke Oneida as a little girl, she was beaten. Now Ms. Shenandoah has the entire tribe behind her efforts to learn, use, and teach the language.

"The hard part right now is that there aren't many people who speak it," says Ms. Shenandoah. "But I think once we get more and more people speaking it, it'll just grow and grow until everyone can speak English and Oneida. And that means 'it's my responsibility to learn the Oneida language.'"

There is one big disappointment about the language-immersion program so far: only women have signed up. That's partly explained by the culture's matriarchal traditions. The men complain they're too busy with their jobs at the tribe's casino or elsewhere.

But this Indian nation has devised a clever way to get boys, if not men, interested. Lacrosse is a Native American game that many others have learned, and it's played with a passion on the Oneida reserve. So the newly trained Oneida speakers are helping coaches slip more and more Oneida words into a place where boys are sure to learn them, on the lacrosse field.