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Make your Mark

I’m studying Osage orthography. Last week in Wakonze Celena Noear’s orthography class we had a drill. Whenever I’m in Oklahoma, I take Osage language classes. I’ve gone to Hominy to hear Master Teacher Mogri Lookout, visited Donna Barrone in Fairfax, but most of the classes I’ve taken have been at the Language Department in Pawhuska. I’ve been delighted to be able to join an on-going class; while I’ve learned some things, I hadn’t learned the orthography.

During previous lessons, I made notes phonetically next to the orthography, following Charles Pratt’s early instruction to write words as you hear them, but it wasn’t working. I was lost, the beautiful symbols remained cryptic, while everyone else moved forward. Last time I was in class, Wakonze John Shaw said, “you’ll be ok when you get the orthography.”

I live in the Pacific Northwest. The Language Department has had the technology, the expertise and requests from distance learners to offer classes for years. I remember Veronica Pipestem’s video classes offered in 2014, which I enjoyed, and Cameron Pratt’s classes via a web platform, still located on the Language Department’s page. I dug up my password, which still works, and forwarded a new request to be assigned to a class, but I’ve found it hard to maintain commitment studying alone. There have been social media pages and posts relating to Osage language for years. The Osage Nation’s language app makes it easy to check your pronunciation and spelling. Lately, technology has opened up as more people make videos and connect via Zoom or FaceTime or Skype. There’s also synergy with Daposka Ahnkodapi staff required to attend classes and given incentives to do so.

Each of the previous initiatives had good intentions, made good beginnings, but stalled as teachers moved on, as the department invested in new platforms. In December 2018, the Osage Nation Language Department created a Facebook page that has grown into a portal to classes. Wakonze Celena Noear is streaming beginning classes on Tuesdays at noon (Central Standard Time) and promoting them on social media. “We’re brushing up on verbs,” she wrote.

When Noear advertised a basic orthography class that would be streamed, I saw my chance. So far, we’ve dedicated ourselves to the vowels, writing vocabulary words, which also exposes us to the consonants. The first week I attended class, Congresswoman Alice Goodfox was there, as was Dana Bear and John HorseChief, which I took as positive peer pressure. I’ve done homework, filling lined notebook pages with vowels, like U, which I picture as a horseshoe to remind me it’s “oo” as in boot.

Last week, Wakonze Celena gave us a drill, which she called a break. She read words for us to write. “Sound them out,” she said, which reminded me of elementary school. Each of the teachers has created a no fault feeling in class that makes learning possible, even fun, which feels refreshingly different from my school days. So, last Thursday, we proceeded to write the Osage words for morning, noon and day, and other words like meat gravy, star and Straighten Up! Each of these words carries our culture with it: Friday is “No Meat Day.” I didn’t spell every word correctly, but when I looked at my paper, I realized, I’d written the responses in Osage orthography. It was an Aha! moment—the pay off for the investment. The next day, I could still read what I had written.

Learning a language isn’t really hard. You just have to have patience, be willing to not know what you’re doing, to feel lost, to guess wrong. Not many people enjoy feeling incompetent, likely even fewer Osages. I’m just beginning, but I want to share my experience for folks who feel the orthography is a barrier (as I had).  

The work we do encourages others. Mary Oklah told me she’d learned the orthography some years ago when John Maker, Mary Bighorse and Talee Redcorn taught. I’m inspired by Mary’s perseverance, as I am by Vanessa Moore, who comes to class consistently, carrying her fat notebook of handouts.

Check with the Osage Nation Language Department for the full schedule. Online classes include Beginner Lunch with Language, streamed Facebook Live on Tuesdays at noon (CST). Orthography is noon (CST) Thursdays, and the Advanced Class is Thursday at 7 p.m. (CST), both are broadcast via Zoom, see Osage Nation Language Page for Zoom info. The Tuesday beginners’ class streamed on Facebook on 2/18 has had 335 views, while class on 2/25 had 184 views. My gratitude to the Nation, the Language Department and all the teachers and learners for creating this community. I’m still practicing. Washka^