Thursday, November 23, 2006

Beyond THE FUTURE: “Oneida Indian Nation Works to Recover its Language”

I always get homesick around the holidays, so any news from upstate New York is welcome this time of the year. I was happily surprised to chance upon a Morning Edition story on NPR this past Monday, “Oneida Indian Nation Works to Recover its Language,” that highlighted an encouraging story about the Oneida Indians who used to populate much of New York State. Limited now to a reservation 30 miles east of my hometown of Syracuse, the Oneida Nation of New York has made news in the past with a highly profitable and popular casino as well as other business ventures. Turns out a significant portion of Oneida Nation profits are funneled into educational programs, some of which have led to immersion classes in the formerly nearly defunct Oneida language.

To hear people speak a language that’s not only foreign but is also rarely heard is an educational experience in itself. As I listened to the story I tried to make sense out of the sounds taught to represent “man” and “woman” in a beginners’ class for Oneida speakers. One thing that rang clear was the teacher’s patience and love for the language she was teaching. One student told the story of her parents, both of whom spoke Oneida, who had not passed that language onto their daughter. They had been punished—beaten—for speaking their native tongue when they were sent to “white” schools as children. Our government was determined to assimilate Native Americans into a whitewashed culture that left no room for their heritage, and abusing children was considered appropriate means toward that sad end.

Luckily some tribes have survived and, like the Oneida Nation, are flourishing. I know the piece of country these people call home, and I’m so happy to hear they’re doing well. To resurrect a native language must make one feel as though she’s resurrecting a lost piece of her being; to build and maintain such a bridge with an ancient heritage must contribute to the well-being of every person involved. I have a feeling if and when that one student becomes a parent, she’ll speak to her children in Oneida, and they’ll do the same with their own.

One thing I always love about going home is hearing the sounds of my family’s voices. My brothers sound like each other and my dad; my sisters sound like each other and my mom. Not exactly alike, of course, but it’s the inflections and the facial expressions, the familial sense of humor and the years of knowing each other that contribute so much to holiday conversations. So I’ll call today and hear some of those voices, and I’ll be happy to hear them across long-distance telephone lines. Then I’ll start counting down to the next time I’ll get on a plane to make the cross-country trek that will once again bring me to a place I cherish, where loved ones’ voices remind me of who I am, and where I’ve always belonged.

Stunning acrylic on canvas artwork “Celebration of the Three Sisters” by Dave Hill of the Oneida Nation © 2001. The Three Sisters in some Native American cultures refer to corn, beans, and squash.


Blogger Matt said...

Thanks for the post and the links I really love it when cultures recover that which was lost to generations. Nice post thanks.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

My pleasure, Matt! It's always fun to research something new. K.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

My two oldest sons are half Passamaquoddy Indian. I'm going to pass this post along to them. Thanks, K!

8:48 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Great to hear, Patry. I've never heard of the Passamaquoddy tribe. K.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

They're from Maine.

11:31 PM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

The art is fantastic and it's so good to hear about the Oneida Nation. I lived in Santa Fe for some time and became friends with some Native Americans. Their stories are so diverse, yet often bound by struggle.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Santa Fe's on my list of places in this region (I'm just south of Denver) to visit. You've been everywhere, Paris! And I agree that artwork is stunning.

3:57 PM  

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