Beating the Clock to Keep the Yuchi Language Alive

94-year-old Maxine and 3-year-old Chaské Turning Heart represent the oldest and the youngest Yuchi speakers.

94-year-old Maxine and 3-year-old Chaské Turning Heart represent the oldest and the youngest Yuchi speakers.

In Sapulpa, Oklahoma, over 20 years ago, the Yuchi language was disappearing. With the Yuchi people withstanding generations of trauma and annihilation, their language had dwindled to a few Native speakers, and it was on the verge of extinction. The Yuchi Language Project has changed that destiny. And now, with funding from First Nations Development Institute’s Native Language Immersion Initiative, this organization is building on its programming in a race against time to ensure that the Yuchi language – and the culture, identity and perseverance that come with it – lives on.

Language of a People

Halay Turning Heart, project administrator for the Yuchi Language Project, explains that Yuchi is an isolate language. This means it is completely distinct, without related languages from which it has borrowed words or blended. It is guessed that the language reflects the culture of the people who speak it: exclusive, select, proud and, moreover, tenacious despite many obstacles.

Turning Heart explains how the Yuchi people were among the Native tribes forced from their homelands to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears.” Through the genocide, oppression and trauma, the Yuchi survived and remained unyielding, even years later when assimilation efforts were in full force, their children were sent to boarding schools, and “English Only” laws were implemented throughout their communities. Today, the Yuchi Tribe is not federally recognized as its own nation. Much of the tribe has been fragmented, with many members now enrolled Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Further, the remaining roughly 2,400 Yuchi people are spread out, with the Yuchi language concentrated in the Sapulpa area.

The Yuchi Language Project immerses people of all ages through classes at the “Endangered Language Habitat.”

The Yuchi Language Project immerses people of all ages through classes at the “Endangered Language Habitat.”

Still, while it can be said that the Yuchi language is weak in that its number of speakers became reduced to a handful. More accurately, the fact that the language has withstood through so many hardships is more a testament to its strength.

“The Yuchi people are very independent, self-reliant and self-determined,” Turning Heart says. “This has reinforced our language.”

It is the fortitude of the Yuchi people and their commitment to their language that brought them to the point 25 years ago when the Yuchi Language Project was founded.

Endangered Language Habitat

The Yuchi Language Project is a community-based organization dedicated to restoring the strength of the Yuchi language and thereby the cultural health of the Yuchi people. Since its inception it has worked to produce written Yuchi materials where none had existed, harvest the knowledge and stories of the few Yuchi-speaking elders, and develop immersion practices that would build fluency and create the next generation of Yuchi speakers. The project serves the entire Yuchi community through language classes for all ages, culture camps, master-apprentice sessions, curriculum development and youth programs like sports and clubs.

Learning the language young, kids soon become ambassadors for Yuchi culture throughout the community.

Learning the language young, kids soon become ambassadors for Yuchi culture throughout the community.

Now, with funding from First Nations, the organization is building on its success with the project gOnEEnû O’wAdAnA, meaning “A New Generation of Yuchi Speakers.” This project is designed to further sustain the Yuchi language by targeting young people (preschoolers and students in K-12). Turning Heart explains how it is critical to offer a program that engages children in learning Yuchi starting from an early-childhood stage through their schooling years so that they can keep growing their language skills.

Key to these efforts is the project’s “Endangered Language Habitat,” a physical space in which only Yuchi can be spoken and to speak English, one must step outside.

“We are dedicated to that boundary,” says Turning Heart. “Once we literally open the door to English, we see that it seeps in.”

Allowing English not only jeopardizes the students’ ability to learn Yuchi, it also oppresses the Native language and the pride and identity it encompasses. “When English is the language of commerce and the legal system, it becomes the only language that is valued, and the only one that matters,” says Turning Heart. “By creating an endangered language habitat, we’re raising the prestige of our language. We’re building pride in our students and their ability to speak Yuchi.”

The project takes steps to also make the learning process fun, with processes focused on peer-to-peer learning, sports, and active games in which teams may “lose points” if they accidentally speak English. Through it all, they are already seeing children learning the language faster and at a younger age. Moreover, the success of the language immersion is spilling into other areas.

For example, Yuchi language instructors use a method called Total Physical Response, Native sign language, and curriculum materials based on seasonal themes relating to the Yuchi cultural cycle. This means students learn the Yuchi language, and they learn in the way that Yuchi people best learn, which promotes academic skills and results in higher scholastic achievement.

This approach directly addresses a misperception in the local community about Yuchi children and how many automatically believe they need English as a Second Language classes. “There’s a lot of ignorance about our language, and as a result it can be looked down on,” Turning Heart says. “But all our kids are also fluent English speakers. We work to educate everyone that learning Yuchi doesn’t displace their English fluency. It actually builds both languages.

“It’s a misunderstanding that kids who speak Yuchi need extra help,” she says. “In reality, studies show that people who are bilingual are more likely to outperform in every area and to do better academically.”

Documenting the Language, Learning from Others

Through the First Nations funding, the Yuchi Language Project is also aiming to train more language instructors and create multimedia learning materials that document not just the language but also the memories and perspectives of the Yuchi elders.

They are having elders retell old stories and capturing their presentations on video. They are also collecting older recordings of Yuchi speakers who have passed away and having current elders interpret their words as youth create accompanying visuals. In the end they aim to have a series of videos that can be shared in classes or with the public. Kids will have a way to watch, listen and learn and there will be more ways to access the stories and traditions of the Yuchi culture that would have been lost forever.

Sports are played using the Yuchi language only. To make the learning fun, team that use English by mistake may lose points.

Sports are played using the Yuchi language only. To make the learning fun, teams that use English by mistake may lose points.

Also – through a separate travel scholarship from First Nations – delegates of the Yuchi Language Project were able to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2019, during the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages. The forum is the UN’s central coordinating body for matters relating to the concerns and rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples. There, Turning Heart says, they were able to meet with other language advocates and teachers who were in the same situation.

“We all have elders getting into their 80s and 90s, and we all only have a few years to capture their insights. We’re not alone in this struggle,” she says.

At the same time, Turning Heart says it was inspiring to feel “unity at a global level.” They could see what was happening internationally and locally, and how others are prevailing at passing down language so key to people’s cultures.

“At the end of the day, language is tied to everything,” she says. “It is a lens through which we see the culture. Without the language, we would lose our foods, ceremonies and stories.”

Speaking of Strength

Indeed, thanks to the Yuchi Language Project, the Yuchi language is sustaining, reflecting the strength and perseverance of a people. It is known as one of the world’s most ancient and richest languages and it continues to carry centuries of tradition, history and the unique Yuchi perspective. The project has future goals of expanding its programming, reaching more students and continuing to build fluency in the next generations. Moreover, it is bringing joy to Yuchi elders who thought the language would die with them.

English Stops Here

One of those elders is 94-year-old Maxine Wildcat Barnett, who has served as a bridge to the past, with memories and stories dating back to the 1800s, and who hadn’t heard the language spoken by young people since she was a little girl. Now, seeing the young students participate in Yuchi ceremonies and be ambassadors for the language, has created a huge source of pride. “I think seeing the language live on has been her purpose,” Turning Heart says. “I think it’s how she’s lived so long.”

Turning Heart is grateful for the support of the Yuchi community and First Nations in advancing the project’s efforts. “They understand the importance of our language and the strength of our people,” she says. “We’re up against the clock, but we’re not going to let it die on our watch.”

By Amy Jakober