Twenty years ago, the number of Yuchi language speakers could be counted on one hand. Decades of government policy, including forced removals from tribal lands and stripping Native Americans of their language, culture and identity, had led to a pivotal moment for tribal member Richard Grounds.
“It became pretty clear that as we began to lose elders, the fire that was the language was about to go out,” said Grounds, research professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa and member of the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma. He is also a member of Pickett Chapel United Methodist Church in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. “We needed to take pretty direct steps to try to intervene and save the language.”
He said Indigenous languages are essential to ceremonial life, medicinal knowledge and tribal identity.
“Our languages are gifts from the Creator, carrying original instructions about the proper way of living in the world,” he said.
Grounds described a period after World War II when the government implemented the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. That act encouraged American Indians to leave Indian reservations, their traditional lands, and to assimilate into the general population in urban areas. Many Yuchi members left their communities, not to return for several years. When they did come back, they wanted to learn or, in some cases, relearn the language. However, no written resources existed.
“I was able to go to college, and the irony was, of course, that I was getting funding to study French and Spanish languages, but there was no money for me to study the language of my grandmother,” said Grounds. During graduate school at Princeton Seminary, he began his focus on preserving the Yuchi language.
While other tribes have grammar dictionaries, the New Testament or, perhaps, the entire Bible translated in their languages, such resources were not available in the Yuchi language, Grounds noted. Without such resources to draw upon, it was difficult to have a clear understanding of how the Yuchi language worked.
“We were trying to learn from elders whose intuition and understanding of the language is just completely inherent in the way they think,” he said. “They can’t always tell you what the patterns are or the grammar of the language.”
He described the preservation efforts as intense and laborious. Many of the programs were aimed at adults. He home-schooled his own children intermittently to allow them time to work with the elders. The Yuchi elders were from the World War II era, and Grounds said he didn’t know how much time they had with them.
“We were working with our youngest fluent elder, and she was in her 60s at the time,” recalls Grounds. “We thought we would have years to work with her, but unfortunately, she ended up battling cancer, and our time was cut short.”
Grounds began a community class for children and quickly realized it wasn’t enough. He described a process at home where, once he learned a phrase in the language, he then stopped using it in English.
“You know, ‘I love you’ and ‘good night,’” Grounds said. “I wanted them to go to sleep at night with the language in their heart and wake up with the language.” He eventually developed a complete writing system that was accurate and showed the nuances of how the language is spoken.
While working with children, he realized context for the language was critical.
“It turns out that a lot of things I said to the children, I said in Yuchi and didn’t actually try to explain to them in English,” he said. “They just absorbed the meaning, and that is the ultimate pattern.”
He said the Yuchi language program now tries to move away from relying on English to teach the children, and the original language is used as much as possible.
“We build the capacity to begin with what we call ‘survival words,’” he said. The survival words allow students to ask questions such as “What is this?” or “What are you doing?” “We give the children a few basic things, so children can start a language and still stay in the language,” he added.
The potential extinction of the Yuchi language is shared by 7,000-plus Indigenous communities globally. According to United Nations experts, one language dies every 14 days around the world. Grounds played a key role in bringing about the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019 to shed light on the critical state of languages globally.
Today, Grounds’ daughter, who participated in the language apprenticeships with elders, is a fluent speaker. She leads the children’s classes for the Yuchi Language Program and classes at Pickett Chapel United Methodist Church.