The Chickasaw people, living all over the United States but whose government seat and most concentrated numbers are in central Oklahoma, saw that their language was quickly fading away with the deaths of elderly speakers – the situation that most American Indians have found themselves in. Presently there are fewer than 75 speakers, all over the age of 55.
Chickasaw Nation, under the leadership of Governor Bill Anoatubby, decided to do something about that. Building on the small language program begun in the late 1990s, Chickasaw Nation established the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program in 2007, and created the department of Chickasaw Language in 2009, with seven full-time employees and a 24-member Chickasaw Language Committee. UCLA linguist Pam Munro serves as the program’s consultant, along with John P Dyson (Associate Professor, Emeritus, Indiana University at Bloomington) who also co-teaches Chickasaw language classes at East Central University, Ada.
Director Joshua D Hinson, surely one of the most ambitious and hardest-working language workers in the country, explains in a lovely metaphor the path that the language has taken historically:
The Chickasaw have a long and storied history since separating from the Choctaw circa 1450. Today Chickasaw tribal history is conceptualized in four seasons. Summer, the start of the Chickasaw New Year, marked by the Green Corn Ceremony, is understood as encompassing the lives of Chickasaw ancestors pre-contact. In this time our lifeways and language were fully intact and strong. Fall, marked by the closing of the ceremonial grounds and preparation of food for the long winter, is understood as encompassing the challenging years of the eighteenth century, when the Chickasaw were hard pressed on all sides by the French and French-allied Choctaw, losing hundreds of our people to warfare and disease. From the Yamasee War beginning in 1715 though the defensive consolidation at Old Town in present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, to the flight of 80 Chickasaw to the Savannah River near present-day Augusta, Georgia circa 1720, the Chickasaw declined to a nadir of as low as 1600 individuals by 1760. Winter, marked by hunger, months of limited food and long nights filled with tribal stories, is today understood to encompass the horrors of Removal to Indian Territory beginning in 1837, the struggles of reestablishing our nation in these new lands, the losses of the Civil War, and the heartbreak of allotment, as our tribal government was for all intents and purposes terminated and our tribal lands broken up into individual allotments. Winter continues into the lean years of the early to mid-twentieth century, as we struggled to survive without a functioning government, limited financial resources, and a population increasingly forced to leave traditional communities in order to find work. Spring, traditionally marked by the return of ball play, dances, and the first growth of wild onions, is today understood to encompass our present Chickasaw cultural and political renaissance.
Mounting a full-scale revitalization effort, the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program has instituted an astonishing number of projects.
Speakers Jerry Imotichey and JoAnn Ellis teach four levels of Chickasaw at East Central University in Ada, OK. They have 15-20 students in each of their classes.
At Byng High School, two levels of Chickasaw language are taught for credit.
With the assistance of Leanne Hinton (University of California at Berkeley), Mr. Hinson has organized a Master-Apprentice program with six teams of speakers and their language apprentices. Additionally, a group master-apprentice class meets regularly.
Chipota Chikashshanompoli, a children’s enrichment program for primary through middle school youngsters, meets once a month. They learn vocabulary words based on themes but also learn pieces that will be performed in competition at the annual Youth Language Fair, hosted by the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma (contact Mary Linn for more information).
Community language classes are held in the towns of Norman, Purcell, Ada, Tishomingo, Ardmore, and Sulphur.
Employee language classes give special attention to those who represent Chickasaw Nation.
Family immersion and sports camps, organized periodically, keep focus on the language while playing together.
The department of Chickasaw Language also sponsors projects that affect the organized Chickasaw community councils outside Oklahoma.
The Chickasaw Press publishes books in Chickasaw and English by Chickasaw authors. All the books have at least some Chickasaw language. So far the press has published children’s books and books of folktales. (The press may be contacted at chickasawpress.com.)
The department of Chickasaw Language offers a Word of the Day (chickasaw.net) and Word of the Week (contact Hanna Corsello) for those who want a small infusion of Chickasaw language practice. Language videos and additional resources can be accessed at chickasaw.tv.
Finally, the program offers both translation services upon request and language materials that can be mailed to anyone who desires to learn the language at home.
Mr. Hinson himself is seeking an interdisciplinary PhD from the University of Oklahoma in Native Language Revitalization. A trained artist in his former career, many of his works can be seen in the Chickasaw Cultural Center and in the homes of lucky patrons. Josh and his wife also encourage the use of Chickasaw in their home, reasoning that their children are the ones who will carry on the language.
All language programs should feel encouraged and inspired by the excellent work coming from Chickasaw Nation.