Two sisters from the Omaha Tribe keep a list of the people who still speak their language.
There are 12 names left.
Glenna Slater and Octa Keen are among the few certified to teach the Omaha Tribe’s language, Umónhon. None of the fluent speakers are under 70.
The single leaf of notebook paper is filled with names scribbled out. The sisters fear a day may come when the last name is scratched out.
“It just tears part of your heart out,” Keen said, “because you know it’s never coming back.”
The tribe, which is centered in Macy, has more than 7,000 members. The tribal council estimates fewer than 150 know parts of the language, but elders and teachers say only a few handfuls are fluent.
The “Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages” says one-third of surviving world languages are “severely endangered,” meaning there are between 10 and 100 speakers. About one-fourth of the 250 or so languages that survived past 1930 have gone silent.
On average, about one endangered language is lost each year. A few in the Omaha Tribe are fighting to keep theirs alive.
Ní Btháska: ‘Land of flat waters’
The Platte River valley is an adopted home for the Omaha Tribe.
Oral history tells of the greater Dhegiha people’s origins in the Ohio River Valley. They migrated to an area around what is now St. Louis in the 17th century, pushed by the warring Iroquois. From there, the tribe split. Factions now known as the Osage, Omaha-Ponca, Quapaw and Kaw each headed in different directions, spawning their own offshoots of the Dhegiha language.
Those that traveled north, up the Missouri River, became known as the Umónhon, which means “upstream people” or “against the current.” That would eventually morph into “Omaha,” a name given to them by white settlers. The Umónhon settled near the Platte and Missouri Rivers and, after a split with the Ponca Tribe, lived around modern-day Bellevue in a place they named Ní Btháska, “land of flat waters.”
Settlers arriving in the land forced the tribe north, where they now live on the Omaha Indian Reservation in Thurston, Cuming and Burt Counties in Nebraska and Monona County in Iowa. A treaty in 1854 ceded all of the Omaha Tribe’s Nebraska lands, bounding them to the reservation and starting an ongoing cultural change.
Even though it had no written form, the language was spoken widely throughout the tribe until the middle of the 20th century.
Mark Awakuni-Swetland, an associate professor of anthropology and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, co-authored the first major Omaha language dictionary. He said most boarding schools up through the 1960s forced students to speak only English. When students from the reservation would speak their native tongue, they would have their mouths washed out with soap or would be hit with switches.
“The boarding school experience beat the language out of them,” he said.
The whitewashing of native culture extended for generations. As moccasins were swapped for sneakers and cultural hand games for television programs, the culture of the reservation became less distinguishable from the rest of the region.
The last of the Omaha who grew up in homes and towns where the language was spoken are aging. For them, the language that was once commonplace has become a luxury shared by few.
“This is what was brought with the coming of the white man,” said Doran Morris Jr., vice chairman of the tribal council. “This is what was taken from us. Part of that was ‘To kill the Indian, save the man.’ That’s part of the historical trauma.”
Wégonze: ‘Teach them’
In one corner of the Umónhon Nation Public School, a room has been built to resemble an earth lodge, furnished with headdresses, drums and other pieces of Omaha culture.
Inside the room, teachers Vida Stabler and Pat Phillips and elder speaker Rufus White try to teach the language to kids from pre-K through high school. But it is just a small part of the students’ otherwise all-English school day.
They teach from binders of material they created on the fly, using letters, conversations and recordings with native speakers. Text is hard to come by because the written form of the language is still in its infancy. Some of it is simply written phonetically to preserve what the few surviving native speakers say.
Swetland is developing a textbook at UNL, but until its completion, the lessons rely on the binders and a newly created Omaha Basic app for the iPhone and iPad. Each lesson is created from firsthand research.
“Most people couldn’t fathom how much time we’ve had to spend on it,” Stabler said.
At Nebraska Indian Community College, Omaha I and II are required for graduation. The third and fourth installments are regularly offered, but it’s rare to find enough interest to offer Omaha V. Even in Omaha I, usually there are fewer than a dozen students, sometimes as few as one.
NICC began teaching the language in the city of Omaha in December, with Slater and Keen leading an Omaha I class of 16, a mix of tribe members and nonmembers.
The language was once offered at UNL but hasn’t been for years. Classes were proposed at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but none materialized.
Where classes exist, students seem to retain little, teachers say.
“You can sit here and talk to them, but when you ask them what we talked about yesterday, ‘Oh, I forgot,’?” White said. “It’s like you’re talking to a brick wall.”
George Aaron Broadwell, a linguistic anthropologist at the University at Albany, State University of New York, has studied the efforts of indigenous groups to pass on their languages. The Mohawk Tribe of upstate New York, he said, faced an endangered tribal language like the Omaha and tried different methods for teaching its youths.
The founding of a summer immersion school in the late 1990s helped the tribe create a fresh generation of speakers, he said. Tribe members ages 6 to 60 entered the program. Within a couple of months, Broadwell said, students would go from being nonspeakers to almost fluent.
Teachers of the Omaha language often mention the idea of immersion programs, but such an effort takes a significant investment of capital and manpower.
“Turning a language around requires a lot of community commitment and a lot of skilled people devoted to developing curricula and helping teachers,” Broadwell said. “Awareness of the problem, it doesn’t alone solve it.”
Help may be on the way in the form of an old family member.
Each year for the past four years, the Dhegiha tribes meet in a small gathering in Oklahoma aimed at combating language loss. The Osage Nation of Oklahoma contacted the Omaha Tribe in January, seeking a partnership after the death of their language in 2005.
They’re offering people and funding to help preserve the Umónhon language, a close relative of the Osage language, with the hope of using it in their own tribe.
Umónhon: ‘Against the current’
Rather than waiting for an immersion school to take shape, Gwen Porter is taking steps to foster the language within her own household.
The tribal council secretary and mother of nine has introduced Umónhon to her children at home over the past two years. She and her kids study vocabulary flash cards and use the app. The young ones, in particular, are picking it up quickly.
But not many families are taking the same steps, she said. Instead, they look toward the education system to teach their kids the language.
Porter said the Head Start and day care programs in nearby Walthill, Nebraska, may add a new language instructor in the next school year. Other plans will wait until the next fiscal year is budgeted in October.
But funding is hard to come by, slowing progress. Tribal Chairman Clifford Wolfe Jr. said families need to make the effort at home to kick-start the growth of the language.
“We can’t force these kids to do anything,” Wolfe said. “It’s up to them if they want to learn.”
Some pieces are in place for the language to be revitalized and more could be on the way in the form of further funding, effort by parents at home or help from other tribes. The challenge, according to Vice Chairman Morris, lies in bringing those pieces and the people in the tribe together.
“I, for one, want to be the generation that doesn’t say, ‘It was here and we didn’t do anything about it and we lost it.’ I want to be the generation that says, ‘It’s here, we’re speaking it, we’re doing something about it and we saved it.’? ”