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Tribe's matriarchs speak to nation's past
3 Oneida elders know the language of whispers and are helping to keep it from dying out
By Emma Graves Fitzsimmons | Tribune staff reporter
January 7, 2008
ONEIDA, Wis. - Maria Hinton remembers speaking Oneida as a child, using it during conversations in living rooms and corner stores across the reservation. Almost a century later, she is running out of people to talk to.
"There is nobody to speak with [at home]," the 97-year-old great-grandmother said. "I'm just walking around my house speaking to myself."
Unique for its whispered syllables, Oneida uses only 15 letters and three symbols to convey a daily life deeply rooted in nature. The words often evoke a moving image, relying on the senses to illustrate a moment. The word for bear clan, "osklewake," describes the glistening powder color of the animal's face.
Hinton is one of three remaining elders who speak this vivid tongue, surviving matriarchs from the last generation to communicate in Oneida. Most members of the Wisconsin tribe today know basic vocabulary but can't use it in conversations.
"There is still an ember left that's burning," said Leander Danforth, the only fluent speaker under age 85. "We can get that ember burning and get a fire started, or that ember could go out."
In a final push to revive their language, the Oneida people are using a federal grant to put digital recordings of the elders online and to provide full-time jobs for eight people to learn to speak the language.
The crisis for the Oneida, whose reservation is a few miles west of Green Bay, is a Midwestern example of a global struggle. Experts estimate one language dies every two weeks. At that rate, nearly half the world's 7,000 languages would disappear in the next century as local dialects are replaced by the dominant languages of globalization. Along with the language, linguists fear losing each culture's history and traditions.
The Oneida, farmers who were driven in the 1820s from sophisticated villages in Upstate New York, have long relied on the complex language to convey the tribe's tumultuous history.
At first blush, the spoken language has a coarse sound as its long word chains unfold. Then the choppy rhythm becomes soothing under the heavy weight of each word, which stores a chapter in the great oral tradition of the Oneida.
Each word tells a story. Even nouns act as verbs to evoke a living, breathing image, said Randy Cornelius, the man responsible for putting the recordings of the elders online.
Take the word "lotikwaho" for the wolf clan, one of three Oneida family lines.
"The language is descriptive," he said. "It's like a motion picture going on. You see the wolf baying at the moon. What a speaker sees is the silhouette of a wolf."
But during the first half of the 20th Century, parents began to prevent their children from learning the language because it was seen as an obstacle to success. Many students attended faraway boarding schools that banned indigenous speech.
Language fading elsewhere
These days, many of the 15,000 members of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin -- about a third of whom live on the reservation -- can say greetings and simple words for foods and animals, but few can speak in sentences.
The language also is used by Oneida tribes in New York and Ontario, Canada, but each dialect is subtly different. The vocabulary varies and so do geographic influences since the groups parted ways. The number of speakers is dwindling in those communities too.
At the end of last year, the Wisconsin tribe's language staff received a coveted $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, to help document endangered languages.
Several attempts by the tribe since the 1970s to teach Oneida to young people have failed to produce a fluent speaker besides Danforth, who says he learned by speaking to elders.
With those opportunities evaporating, Oneida students are trying the next best thing. In a secluded log cabin on a lake just off the reservation, eight "language trainees" arrive each morning, coffee in hand, to listen to recordings of the elders and to recite stories together.
"I wouldn't call it a burden, but it's a big responsibility for this group to take on this task," said Curt Summers, the youngest of the students at 35.
One of the remaining elders, 87-year-old Leona Smith, drops by the language house when she's feeling up to it. On a recent afternoon, the students flocked to listen to Smith tell stories between sips of tea. The words they had struggled with all day flowed from her mouth easily as she talked about the end of the hunting season.
Summers waited patiently for a few moments alone with the elder to ask if she ever saw a white buffalo -- an excuse to practice with the walking, talking dictionary.
It's now or never for these questions. A decade ago, more than a dozen speakers were left, but the elders have died in quick succession, including a funeral last fall.
"As I get up in there in age, I don't have much time left to teach," Smith said. "I tell them, 'It's up to you to save the language.'"
Unlike her three sisters, Smith never left the reservation and thus never lost the language she learned at home. As the number of speakers has declined, she and Hinton find each other at social events to speak in Oneida, forming their own world among the crowd.
Although the women are now honored as "national treasures," they've had their share of struggles. Smith supported her family by working in a factory until she was 73. Hinton once waited tables at a Polish restaurant in Chicago and returned to the reservation to teach at the tribal school until she was 91.
'A source of pride'
The women are wisdom dispensers and mothers at the helm of large families spanning the country. In private, they express heavy regret that their children don't speak Oneida.
"It was considered backward, like you weren't on the path to success in the white man's world," said Smith's son, Peter, 58. "But then it became a good thing, a source of pride."
As Smith and Hinton dedicate their remaining years to preserving the language, they've found the project also keeps them from getting lonely.
"It gives me a good feeling, coming here and leaving the house ... instead of just staying home in my rocking chair," Smith said.
Over the last two years, the language staff has recorded more than 20 hours of Smith talking about whatever is on her mind -- the tapes include monologues on the Green Bay Packers, childhood memories and the weather. The goal is to capture conversational elements of the language that only the native speakers can reveal.
"She's almost totally deaf, so we've tried all different kinds of microphones and headsets," said Inez Thomas, 52, a language trainee who works with the elders. "Once she starts that free-flowing conversation, I can't keep up with her."
A few miles away from the language house, Hinton is seated behind a giant dictionary at her kitchen table wearing a headset and a microphone.
She published the definitive, 664-page Oneida dictionary in 1996 with her brother, who has since died, but her work isn't done yet. She's almost halfway through recording the pronunciation of each word, making a talking dictionary for the future Oneida language Web site.
The Web site will preserve the language for students like Thomas, who said she was motivated to learn the language by memories of staying awake past her bedtime to hear her mother speaking Oneida.
The third surviving elder had been visiting the language house weekly to do similar recordings until she suffered a massive stroke last August. The 94-year-old woman has since moved into a nursing home and is partially paralyzed.
Thomas has visited her there to continue their sessions, but her declining health has made the work more difficult.
"I hope we can continue on, but we don't know from day to day," Thomas said. "I'll take whatever I can get. Any of the language we can save -- just a phrase or two. Every word is precious."
IN THE WEB EDITION: Watch video of the Oneida people's attempt to revive their language at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/oneida
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