December 9, 2007

Fluent speakers of the Wichita tribe down to last woman


Oklahoma had been a state for only two decades when Doris Jean Lamar was born in 1927. Her first spoken words were not English, but an American Indian language taught to her by grandparents. Today, Lamar is the last fluent speaker in the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, a tribe of 2,300.
Sitting in a tribal canteen that she supervises, the 80-year-old Lamar carries a language that once was spoken by thousands, then hundreds of Wichita language speakers. 

“As a girl, I never dreamed I’d be in this position, as the last speaker of my language”

“I never thought I would be in this position as a girl, to be our last fluent speaker,” she said. 

Wichita is one of the languages classified as Caddoan, but is only similar in stock to the Caddo language, scholars said. Lamar’s tribe is one of a handful indigenous to Oklahoma with a present-day jurisdiction in Caddo County. 

Lamar’s journey was not unlike other girls in southwest Oklahoma in the years right before the Great Depression. Her full-blood maternal grandparents worked a farm and raised their grandchildren. She recalls fewer cars, more thriftiness and no electricity back then. With a white father and an Indian mother, Lamar stood out among her peers. 

“I never thought of myself as white; to me, I was Wichita,” she said. “The old ladies of our tribe thought it was something to hear this little white girl speak Wichita.” 

She eventually married a non-Indian and had children. After she divorced in 1959, she moved back among her American Indian relatives near Gracemont. She continued to speak Wichita as she did as a girl. 

“Ever since I could remember, I spoke Wichita,” she said. My husband told me that me speaking Indian was the only time he remembered I was Indian.” 

Around 1962, Lamar met an earnest young linguist who followed tribal members in order to listen to them speak, she recalled. That young linguist was David Rood from the University of Colorado. 

Rood has been working with the Wichitas since he stumbled upon the Indian language while looking for one that was not being preserved, he said. He still works with Lamar and other tribal members. They race to record the Wichita language so that a dictionary can be gleaned. They have spent hours going over Wichita words and compiling language CDs on creation stories, verbs, nouns and names. 

Defining tribal fluency can be tricky, Rood said. In small tribes, debates exist over who qualifies as a fluent speaker.

Lamar speaks some Wichita with another tribal member who labors with the language. 

“She tells me there are so many words in her head that she can’t get out, she gets frustrated,” Lamar said. 

Speaking and writing the language are key. Sometimes tribal members know ceremonial songs by heart. Yet linguists think fluency is more complicated than that. 

I would say when somebody is able to speak the language in a way that has never been spoken before or ever written in a language book . . . as an abstract thought, then that is fluency,” Rood said. 

The linguist tried to organize a conversation among the last few fluent Wichita speakers in the early 2000s, he said. He regards the exercise as a half-success. But the gathering was stilted because of political differences among the speakers. 

“Which is typical in almost all Indian tribes,” he said of tribal political factions. “They spoke a little, but not much.” 

Hope exists for the Wichitas’ dying language.

An immersion class for children has been soldiering forward, as is an adult-oriented language class, both subsidized by federal grants. 

But the Wichitas must cross another obstacle of language revitalization: retention. Sam Still, a Cherokee speaker, said retention among adults and children remains low if the language is not already spoken in the home. 

“For children, when they have no one at home to speak the language with, there is no one to practice the sounds with and they lose it,” Still said. “When you’re around the language, you learn it better.” 

Meanwhile, Lamar fishes a small recorder out of her pocket and turns it on. She speaks English words first, then the Wichita word follows. 

“I have been doing this a lot, lately,” she said, pressing play. “I just put whatever words pop into my head.” 

The tribal elder is aware that her language hangs on the precipice. She remembers the time when everyone around her spoke Wichita. Now, none of her children speak more than a few words, she said. 

“They live in the white world,” she said. “I don’t.” 

AUTHOR: S.E. Ruckman

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