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School Of Language To Conduct Important Count Of Choctaw First Speakers
by Shelia Kirven - BISKINIK

The Choctaw Nation School of Language will conduct a vital survey beginning in May of tribal members who are fluent first speakers of the Choctaw language. The survey will remain open through the end of June.

All Choctaw tribal members who are first speakers are asked to complete the short survey. A first language speaker is someone who grew up in a home where Choctaw was spoken.

The survey asks for name, contact information, age range and how many people in the home speak the Choctaw language. It asks the person taking the survey to describe themselves as a first speaker, as someone who grew up hearing the language; can understand it but cannot respond; or as someone who grew up hearing the language, understands it, and can engage in limited small talk. Personal information will not be shared with anyone outside the Choctaw Language Program.

Participants will also be asked if they would like to improve their speaking skills. Additionally, names of other fluent speakers are asked for in the survey as well.

Teresa Billy, Assistant Director of the Choctaw School of Language, said it is imperative to see how many first speakers are in the tribe. Billy stated that the department wants to know the people who grew up in the culture, grew up in the home speaking Choctaw and understood all the culture's nuances.

She spoke of the toll that the recent Covid pandemic has taken on tribal speakers in the Choctaw Nation. "We know we've lost at least 40-50 people due to Covid, or during this time of Covid." She went on to say, "That number could be higher."

A second survey will follow later in the year, which will capture information about those who have learned or are learning the language as a second language speaker and their speaking level.

Billy commented, "We are not leaving the second speakers out. We want to know how many are also actively learning the language and teaching it to their children."

"Your language is tied to your culture. With our original speakers, every day that we lose some, we lose those people who know those traditional hymn songs we sing, they know older tunes, they can start them, they can sing them. But as we move along at this time, even at funerals, people are looking for someone to come and sing these traditional hymns at these services, and it's harder and harder to find people because the original people
are passing away," Billy stressed.

She went on to say about the language, "It is connected and tied to our sovereignty. Within your sovereignty, it is required that you must have a distinct language associated with your tribe. That distinct character is our language."

With extreme importance of why the surveys are being done and why the Choctaw language cannot become extinct comes the need for everyone to work together to make sure that people learn the language and use it so that it does not die.

"As a tribal member dies, we lose bits of culture. That is why it is so important to learn the language. We are very grateful for all those new learners who are putting forth the effort and initiative to learn the language," Billy went on to say.

The heart of the Choctaw Nation rests in its people, culture and Chahta anumpa, Choctaw language. Identifying language speakers is vital to tribal sovereignty. Chief Batton believes, "We must continue to nurture support for our traditions and celebrate our uniqueness as Chahta people."

The Choctaw Nation School of Language was started in 1996 and has been fully funded by the tribe for its existence.

"What has been wonderful for us and the tribe is that the Chief and Tribal Council have totally supported us. We have never been limited on anything that was needed. That is why we have been able to do what we have done for so long. We are 100% tribally funded," Billy said.

Since that time, the program has grown by leaps and bounds, publishing a new Choctaw dictionary, teaching in Head Starts, high schools and universities, online and in communities. Jones Academy in Hartshorne also has first through fifthgrade lessons in the Choctaw language class each year.

Though the Covid pandemic has canceled in-person community language classes for the time, the School of Language's Facebook page has been busier than ever with almost 2,500 followers, as has the department's website.

Online classes for high schools, colleges, universities, and communities are still being taught, as are Jones Academy and Head Start instruction.

When asked what readers can do at home and with their families to preserve the language and the culture, Billy recommended sharing lessons that appear on the Choctaw School of Language's Facebook page with children and family and speaking the language at family gatherings. She also stressed the importance of teaching Choctaw phrases. "Get a notebook and pick up four or five phrases, and practice those over and over until your family knows them, and then go back and pick up more sentences. Do a little bit at a time but stick with it and
make it part of your daily routine."

She also highly recommends recording family elders and, in the community, speaking the language.

Billy said it is also important to make sure that when one is learning and speaking the language, they also learn and share the culture – such as cooking. Choctaw foods, learning the names and how they are prepared, asking elders how it was cooked in the old days, and the background information is very important.

The School of Language must document our speakers of the Choctaw language in this vital count. If you know of someone who may need assistance in completing the survey, please reach out and assist them or contact the Choctaw School of Language so that they may help.

The survey can be found at Please take the survey only one time per person.

If you are interested in learning more about the survey or the program's mission, contact the Choctaw School of Language at

Visit the Choctaw School of Language's FaceBook page at https://www.facebook. com/SchoolofChoctawLanguage or their webpage at https://www.choctawnation.

Choctaw dictionaries and hymn books are also available for purchase at

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