Tribal efforts to preserve languages get boost from COVID relief funds

Rebecca Risenhoover, in striped top, is the Cheyenne and Arapaho language director. She says she and Arapaho lead apprentice James Sleeper, far right, already are thinking of ways to use the American Rescue Plan money in their language program. (Photo courtesy of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Language Department)

Justin Neely, director of language for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma, grew up among elders who told him that if the Potawatomi language is lost, so are the Potawatomi people.

Now, elders who speak those Native languages are dying from COVID-19 and its complications at much higher rates than white populations.

Neely compared the death of a tribal language speaker to a library burning down. He said there are seven unique tribes of Potawatomi in the United States. And among all Potawatomi, fewer than 10 first-language speakers were alive when the pandemic struck, and some might have died in the past year.

A first-language speaker is someone who grew up speaking a tribal language. Second-language speakers learned a Native tongue as a second language.

The American Rescue Plan, which allocates $31 billion to the tribes nationwide, set aside $20 million to help Native American nations preserve their languages. The funding is designed to help assure the survival of tribal cultures, spiritual identities and forms of traditional communication.

Normally, the 574 federally-recognized tribes – along with colleges, museums and youth centers that teach Native languages – must compete with one another for federal funding that targets language preservation.

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There are no fluent speakers of Arapaho left in Oklahoma, said James Sleeper, an Arapaho lead apprentice, and there might be only 10 or 15 first-language Cheyenne speakers left.

“We have less than 1,000 first-language speakers, our loss (during the pandemic) has been approximately 100 first-language speakers out of a population of 200,00 tribal members,” said Teresa Billy, assistant director of education services for the Choctaw Nation.

“This could very well be defined as a crisis for the preservation of our language.”

Tribes are often oral societies, Neely said, and because not every speaker is knowledgeable on every aspect of the culture, losing just one speaker leaves a permanent hole in the tribes’ cultures, communities and identities.

“One might be an avid fisherman and knows lots of terminology and concepts to deal with fishing,” Neely said. “One might be an avid basketmaker. One might be a gardener and know different terminologies for certain plants. Or somebody who deals with medicine and knows different herbs and ways to treat different ailments.

“So, you know, just losing one speaker has a devastating effect on Native people.”

Funding, or lack of it, is what Shawnee language director Joel Barnes said was most likely the detriment to Native nations’ language programs of the past. He said the tribe would like to use the language allocations to first pay employees, not volunteers, for their work in preserving the language.

“It amazes me, after creating a budget, how much it takes to put on what I would call a successful language program,” Barnes said. “And I really think that’s been the failure with a lot of tribes in the language programs, why they’ve tried to start up and they’ve collapsed – because they just simply did not have the funding to do what was necessary in order to achieve success within the language program.”

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Cronkite News has partnered with OU to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.