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Although Oklahoma boasts of 38 federally recognized Native American tribes, there are just five known Osage speakers in the state. The extreme deficiency of speakers stem from limited educational sources, making every resource invaluable. Being so, the Native American language department’s most treasured item is not a million-year-old fossil or a rare specimen. It’s a notebook.
The Osage language, native to Oklahoma, is a member of the Dhegihan branch of Siouan languages and is related to Kansa (Kaw), Quapaw and Omaha-Ponca. With only a handful of speakers, these languages are severely endangered and none have adequate documentation. However, one remarkable document from northern Oklahoma offers hope for the future of the Osage language.
Robert (Bob) Bristow grew up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma and was interested in languages and Osage even in high school. He married into an Osage family and learned to speak the language fluently. He took copious notes from Osage classes and interviews with Osage elders during the 1970s. These notebooks are filled with vocabulary items, sentences, stories and tribal history.
He additionally jotted down snippets of conversation, plays on words and other humorous quips overheard. As an amateur artist, Bristow illustrated his notes with images of cultural items and doodled Osage ribbon work patterns. His handwritten notes for an Osage Dictionary became the backbone of Carolyn Quintero’s Osage Dictionary (OU Press 2010).
Carolyn Quintero’s Osage Dictionary
Bristow’s work is accurate, easy to read and contains the richest documentation of Osage in the 20th century. His notebooks continue to be invaluable to the Osage Nation Language Department and to scholars of Osage, Siouan, and language and cultural diversity in general. As you likely know, the Sam Noble Museum stores a unique combination of cultural and prehistoric artifacts, which is why next we’ll be visiting the last remaining department, paleontology.
You certainly won’t want to miss our last ITTB post next Wednesday, so mark your calendars! It’s going to be a finale of Jurassic proportions.
Archives and collections hold important historical, cultural, ecological and linguistic information. Unfortunately, many such resources are under-used. The collections in the Native American Languages department at the Sam Noble Museum assume an active role in promoting and enabling language and cultural education. Dr. Mary Linn, Associate Curator for Native American Language, refers to this type of collection as a living archive.
In order to sustain the archive and catalog new material, the NAL department offers several public services to Oklahomans interested in adding to or browsing through the collection. The department works with tribal leaders to digitalize Native American languages primarily through audio and video. At no cost, Native Americans can record original media using the museum’s sound system or transfer dated recordings to a digital format for storage and/or replication. The museum simply asks that the creators deposit a copy of the recording in the collections for public use to aid other language teachers and students.
Recording audio for the archive
As a product of this digital education, the department also offers training in Native American language revitalization through free, downloadable language kits, located on the department website. The kit provides valuable information to parents and language instructors in regard to effective teaching methods and resources, while providing basic tools such as flash cards and written exercises.
To promote language education, the NAL department also participates in the Breath of Life national language program by hosting specialized workshops every other year geared at language renewal. The museum’s workshop, titled Oklahoma Breath of Life, Silent No More, is a week-long, intensive workshop in linguistics designed for indigenous people from communities who no longer have fluent, first language speakers. The workshop trains participants how to utilize the museum’s archives for writing new curriculum and understanding how their language works.
2012 Oklahoma Breath of Life, Silent No More
The Sam Noble Museum also hosts the Native American Youth Video Workshop each year, where young Native Americans can learn the basics of audio and video editing, interviewing and recording. Dr. Linn explained that many Native American youth do not wish to engage with their heritage as the media and pop culture depict primarily English and mainstream culture. Through these workshops, Dr. Linn hopes Native American youth will acquire the confidence and skills to craft expressive art in the context of their own cultures.
Two participants at the Native American Youth Video Workshop
While all of these services offer invaluable insight to indigenous people seeking to better understand their heritage, the Native American language collection is open to the public, with the exception of tribal restrictions on sacred religious material. The collection focuses on print, audio and video material from over 70 Native North American languages, with an emphasis on Oklahoma languages. To schedule a tour of the archive or for additional information, please call Nicholas Wojcik at 405-325-3332. If you would like to browse our catalogue online, simply click here.
Through the many aforementioned services, the department strives to enable language educators with the tools and resources necessary to keeping their language alive in an English-dominant society. By drawing inspiration and instruction from the past, Native American language speakers can contribute to revitalization efforts by breathing their own innovation into this living archive.