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Native American languages are often associated with a bygone era of history, but many people fail to realize that Native American culture thrives today just as it did centuries ago through families dedicated to keeping their heritage alive. Now, more than ever, the emphasis on cultural preservation is being placed in the hands of Native American youth.
One way these students promote the continuation of their heritage is through the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, held annually in early April. Since 2003, children and teens from all across the state of Oklahoma and elsewhere have traveled to compete in their knowledge of Native American languages through music, drama and dance. This year, the fair received a record-breaking 921 students.
A group performance at the 2013 ONAYLF.
“I wanted to compete in the language fair because I wanted to push myself to try and learn more language and tradition,” Chyna Chupco said, a Muskogee-speaker and past ONAYLF participant.
Although students come to the fair to gain language experience, they often take away even more. Kiowa-speaker Kristin Allen said that the fair has helped her overcome a personal struggle.
“I decided to come back [to the fair] because it’s fun, and it helps me with my shyness,” she said.
Native American languages are not outdated, as some may believe. They have developed over time like any other language by adding words for new concepts, even Facebook. By constantly adapting to changes in society, Native American languages retain their relevancy for younger generations.
In this way, Native American culture can also go hand in hand with pop culture. To hear a clip of previous ONAYLF winner Niigan Sunray singing Adele’s popular song “Someone Like You” in Kiowa, simply click here.
Niigan, and her siblings, Tdohasan, Kowi and Onde, are all first language Native-American-language speakers. They are currently involved with the KIOWA KIDS language program, which recently assisted Kiowa elder Modina Waters in publishing a children’s book through through Native American Languages at the Sam Noble Museum. The book, titled Saynday Kiowa Indian Children’s Stories, tells traditional Kiowa fables in both Kiowa and English. Through their involvement with the children’s book, the Sunray children have learned at an early age the importance of cherishing and preserving their culture.
KIOWA KIDS language program attendees.
“We can teach our children to keep the language going on,” Niigan said, the eldest child. “Not many people know it anymore.”
Every night the Sunray children sing a traditional Kiowa hymn together, called A-HO Dawkee (Thank You, God). To hear them sing A-HO Dawkee, click here.
Many previous ONAYLF participants consider their role in cultural revitalization an honor as opposed to a burden as they stated a strong interest in passing down their language to future generations of their own. Katy Shackelford, a 16-year-old Chickasaw-speaker, expressed difficultly in imagining a future without Chickasaw.
“We speak Chickasaw words every day, even if it’s not necessarily whole conversations,” she said. “You can’t really get rid of who you are. A lot of things that we do we do with the tribe, with our culture.”
Katy and Dale Shackelford at their first fair (2004) and the 2013 ONAYLF.
Katy and her brother, Dale, also emphasized a commitment to sharing their culture with those who may hold outdated ideas about Native Americans.
“We do inform people about Native American culture, even if it’s not specifically Chickasaw,” Katy said.
“Even in Oklahoma, there are lot of misconceptions about Native Americans,” Dale added.
Through outlets like the ONAYLF, Native American youth like these are given the tools and support necessary to preserving their heritage. Participants in the ONAYLF give reason to believe that the future of Native American culture is bright indeed.
You can read more about this year’s ONAYLF on the KFOR website.