Breath of Life project is a joint effort by experts from the University
of Texas at Arlington and the University of Oklahoma in which linguists
mentor American Indians so they can better recover endangered languages.
TX Hutke Fields pictures a time when younger generations
of Natchez people use his tribe's native tongue at ceremonies, while
sharing oral histories and during everyday talk at home.
Field's vision is complicated by the fact that only six people,
out of about 10,000 members of the Natchez tribe in Oklahoma, still
speak the language.
lose it if we don't use it," said Fields, who received assistance
last year during a workshop dedicated to helping American Indian
communities in Oklahoma to bring back disappearing languages.
is a participant in the Breath of Life project a joint effort
by experts from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University
of Oklahoma in which linguists mentor American Indians so
they can better recover endangered languages.
is modeled after a project at the University of California, Berkeley.
are growing field linguists," said Colleen Fitzgerald, associate
professor and chairwoman of UT Arlington's Linguistics Department.
"We are transferring knowledge to community members so they
can teach their own languages."
first workshop was held in summer 2010 at OU in Norman, which is
also the site of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
Members of three American Indian communities took part: the Osage,
Otoe and Natchez.
and American Indians will be able to work together again next May.
The project recently got a funding boost that will allow for a second
workshop, Fitzgerald said.
project team received a total of $90,000 in grant money from the
National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that
helps support research at colleges and universities.
grant is spread over two years.
training American Indian community members to be linguists on the
ground, UT Arlington will be working to create linguistic databases
that will ultimately enable the creation of online dictionaries
and collections of texts in various languages, Fitzgerald said.
community will have a database which will also be stored in a repository
at the Noble museum.
was described as a "hot spot" of linguistic diversity
by experts in National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project, said
Mary Linn, associate curator of American Indian languages at the
Noble museum and an associate professor of anthropology at OU.
North America was settled by whites, many tribes were forced to
move to Oklahoma. As a result, there is not only a great deal of
linguistic diversity, but also high levels of language endangerment,
languages grew even more endangered as American Indians assimilated
to English-speaking culture that dominates society.
hard to resist shifting to English," Linn said, adding that
many small tribes picked up the languages of larger tribes.
language sleuths rely on tribal records, grammar and alphabets that
were often chronicled by missionaries, military generals and tribes.
President Thomas Jefferson also collected word lists, Linn said.
said the project allowed his community to computerize a dictionary
and research. Now, Natchez people in South Carolina can practice
with their Natchez friends in Oklahoma. This also allows Natchez
histories to flow more readily from elders who still tell of their
contributions to America as farmers expert in corn and beans.
histories tell of a people displaced from the Gulf Coast and of
deaths from influenza that followed early encounters with European
grieve daily over the loss of cultural values," said Fields,
principal chief for the tribe. "It takes a community and economy
and people who want to preserve."