Oklahoma family aims to keep their native language

By Nanette Light
Norman Oklahoma, (AP) April 2010

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.”

Recently, 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.

“It helps them know who they are and where they truly come from,” she said of her girls’ participation in Kitikiti’sh Little Sister, which won third place for its rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the fair in the category of grade 6 to 8 group language with music or dance.

Antone’s confidence in the tribe’s prospects, however, wavers. As the tribe struggles to sustain its dying language, Antone said it has lowered its blood quantum so more people can formally claim lineage to the Wichita tribe.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have another fluent speaker,” she said shaking her head.

Shackleford, who began studying the Chickasaw language intensely in his adult years and now teaches it to other adults of the tribe, began introducing his smattering of native vocabulary to his five children when they were young.

“These kids are where it’s at,” Shackleford said. “If we can get them taught, that’ll add on another generation.”

At home, sentences are spoken in a mix of English and Chickasaw, said Shackleford’s wife, Mary, adding that it’s mainly because they don’t know all the words, yet.

Since the children are homeschooled, Keith Shackleford said he integrates language learning into their academic studying, along with the family’s discourse while seated around the dinner table, where the idea was birthed for their winning script – a comedy where the two younger children mocked the 16-year-old twins’ driving abilities.

“They’re learning how the language fits into everyday lives. It’s not just a list of words,” Mary Shackleford said.

Keith Shackleford said he expects his children, who range in ages from 10 to 19, to surpass his abilities, laughing off notions of his prospects for fluency.

“It’s who we are,” 16-year-old Skye Shackleford said matter-of-factly, shrugging her shoulders.