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OBSERVER Photo by Steven Olson
Students are taught Seneca at the Language House.
12/30/2007 - Dedicated students study Seneca at Nation’s Language House
By SHIRLEY WEST
OBSERVER Staff Writer
What’s one thing you do every day of your life? Speak.
Language is the most elementary foundation of our lives; we pick it up without seeming to really try as we grow up. Words like “Mama” and “Dada” roll off our tongues before we can even walk.
But what if the word you used to talk to your mother is not the same word she used? Or your grandmother? What kind of disconnect is created when young generations are taught a completely different language than that of their ancestors?
The Seneca Nation Educational Program is trying to bridge this gap by offering open lessons in Seneca every Tuesday and Thursday evening.
“Our doors are open to anyone,” said instructor Marilyn Schindler. “We’re trying to encourage as many Senecas to come down as we can. We try to work around their schedules. Some people have to work all day and can only make it in the evening.”
Along with Schindler, Jessica Huff and others of the Language House teach anywhere from three to eight people each week, free of charge.
“These classes are not for a select few, but are open to any person who is interested in learning the language,” Huff said. “There is plenty of room for more learners.”
The Seneca Nation’s Educational Program has had a language department for 40 years. Phyllis Bardeau, a Seneca elder who received her master’s degree from SUNY Buffalo, developed the first dictionary and written alphabet for the language.
Seneca consists of eight vowels and 120 consonants. Bardeau used English letters to transcribe the sounds of the Seneca language. Many sounds are unique to the language and are difficult to learn.
“It’s easier for us because it’s our native language. We already have the sounds in our throat,” Schindler said, “but for non-Indians, it is difficult.”
Schindler led the group at a recent session in naming household items, such as plates and utensils, encouraging them to repeat it out loud as often as they needed to.
“The more we say it, the better we get the rhythm,” Schindler said. “Just having a lengthy conversation in Seneca — what your name is, what tribe you’re from, where you live — is an accomplishment.”
Three students arrived for the language class, even though it had fallen on a Nation holiday this week. Schindler came in on her day off to lead the class.
“It’s a Nation holiday, but she told us she’d be here if we wanted to come in,” said student Elmer John. “It’s the 159th birthday of the new Seneca Nation government.”
John has a vast knowledge of Seneca history and the language classes are furthering his interest.
John and Sharon Mohawk practice their Seneca vocabulary with each other while doing ordinary things around the house and correct each others’ quizzes. The quizzes in the class are completely for the students’ own benefit. There are no grades.
According to Schindler, there are only a handful of people who are completely fluent in the language.
“It’s not our inadequacies,” Schindler said, explaining that the school had Indian pupils from around 1890 until the state closed it in 1957. “Back then, they broke up families, burnt our cornfields — at the Thomas Indian School they would take children out of the home, telling the families they were not providing a good home. Can you imagine that? Someone taking your child away and not letting them speak their language?”
Students at the Thomas Indian School were forbidden to speak Seneca, and were punished for speaking anything other than English, according to Schindler.
“They wanted us to lose our language,” Schindler said. “Other nationalities that come here are not losing their language like us, but we are in real danger.”
The Seneca Nation will always have a program to keep Seneca from being lost as a language. The Nation has been rebuilding what was lost when they were forced in to public schools for 40 years.
“It’s not a cry baby story, it’s a realistic picture of what happened,” Schindler said. “We’re not going to cry over it anymore.”
The department is slowly growing and trying new things. The class plans to have a dinner after the Christmas holiday, where nothing but Seneca is allowed to be spoken.
“There’s never enough money in the budget for what we’d like to do,” Schindler said. “We’d love digital recording equipment.”
Currently, Schindler burns CDs with spoken Seneca on them for the students to listen to and study from.
The Seneca Nation Educational Program also offers Seneca language courses in local school systems, teaching both Indian and non-Indian students.
The Language House classes meet every week, except when the Nation is closed for business, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
“Classes are not structured in a way that a class should be missed,” said Huff, “or an individual will be behind or must drop out. Some individuals only attend once a week, some twice. Attendance is based on time needed to learn and time available to attend.”
While the language staff would appreciate knowing when to expect new students, calling to reserve a spot is not necessary. Interested individuals may call 532-3341 ext. 5124 for more information or to indicate interest.
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