October is Talented Osages Month, which is every month honestly, and Osage language is very much in the spotlight.
Killers of the Flower Moon will be released on Oct. 20, when Osage actors and extras will shine for world audiences. The joy of seeing the language spoken, and our people on screen sits side by side with the intensity and violence of the story. We have our reactions as Osages, and then we will have to listen (or try to tune out) misinformed hot takes from non-Osages and non-Natives.
Osage will be heard on screen across the world in KOTFM due to the coaching of the Osage Language Department, but Osage is spoken every day and each week in Osage homes and classrooms. Osages from across the reservation and the United States are bringing commitment and energy to learning Osage online and in person. It’s such a good feeling to be in class: to see friends and make new ones, to persevere until the pieces begin to fall into place.
The language department ramped up online classes with the pandemic, giving flexibility to local Osages, and making class accessible for Osages living at a distance. There’s a palpable drive to learn. For some, the opportunity coincides with retirement or a shift in work life, others are committed to teaching their children to speak.
When Osage language teacher Celena White offered an orthography class over Zoom in collaboration with the Northern California Osage, Brooke Smiley jumped on her chance. She said, “I was a mixture of scared, timid, respectful, and also very eager.” She has been in class for four years since, and she doesn’t take the opportunity for granted.
“I have so much respect for our language teachers, their families, and the families who were able to stay,” Smiley said.
Smiley has studied with OJ Littleton, Braxton Redeagle and is now in class with Chris Cotê. She says, “For those that live far away, these hour classes are so much more than learning, listening to and speaking the language. I really appreciate the fellowship that’s created, getting to share it with people I care so much about, and feeling the support we give each other.”
Students like Gayle Dowell, who lives in Manhattan, Kansas, are creating the learning experience they need. She has taken some of the classes twice because of her travel schedule. She also took two beginning classes a week with OJ Littlecook and Robynn Rulo to build the intensity she needed. She labels items in her freezer in Osage and speaks to her family in the Osage she learns. Like many Osages, Dowell describes the generational shifts that have occurred and the ways attitudes about speaking Osage vs. English evolved in her family, originally from Hominy.
The language shift that occurred among the Osage didn’t happen in a vacuum. The joy and power of pushing back against the trend to erase our language and strip our culture is deep, and it underlies our classes and holds us together. That satisfaction pops up clearly at times, buoying me through times when I feel I’ll never progress with this beautiful language of ours.
Many thanks to the teachers who work to make this possible and to fellow students who support each other. There’s much more to say about Osage classes, about our various journeys to speaking our language. This is just a little bit.