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Elders and teachers emphasize Native languages at Dhegiha conference

QUAPAW, Okla. – For the fifth consecutive year, tribal members, language teachers, students and enthusiasts gathered to discuss and promote the Dhegiha language group.

People from the Osage, Ponca, Quapaw, Omaha, Kaw, Ponca and Northern Ponca (Nebraska) tribes make up the Dhegiha language group and nearly 80 people from those respective tribes attended the 2015 Dhegiha Language Conference held July 29-30 at the Quapaw tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort.

The six tribes’ ancestors also lived together centuries ago before separating and ultimately settling in their current-day territories in Oklahoma and Nebraska.

“From the beginning, we said that we were all one at one time,” said Herman “Mogri” Lookout, director of the Osage Language Department. In sharing language commonalities, Lookout referred to the annual Osage In-Lon-Schka dances and noted that many of the songs are in the Ponca language. “I’ve heard them say ‘that’s our song too’ because we were all one,” he said.

Quapaw Tribal Business Committee Chairman John Berrey (also Osage) welcomed the nearly 80 attendees to the resort and said he considered it an honor for the tribe to host the conference. “It’s the things that you (language teachers) do that makes my work possible,” Berrey said of his duties, which include representing his federally-recognized tribe at the national level.

“Our language, our ways, our songs, our prayers, how to shake each other’s hands, how we greet each other, the way we see the world – it makes us different from other people and I’m proud of that,” Berrey said. 

Now in its third year, the nonprofit Dhegiha Preservation Society organized the conference, raised event funding and invited people from the six tribes to come network and learn from the language.

Dhegiha Language Society Chairman Bill Lynn (Osage) said the tribes, which comprise the Dhegiha language group “are bound to one another through a shared history – ancient, social, political and cultural relationships – and a common language, the latter of which is in jeopardy of extinction.”

Wynema Morris (Omaha) is an instructor at Nebraska Indian Community College where she focuses on teaching Native American Studies with an emphasis on her own tribe. In her remarks, Morris praised the efforts to create the conference, which she describes as a place feeling “like home” and added: “Our people (have come) together for the first time in centuries to do something that was extremely important to us as ourselves.”

She credits the current state of Native and Dhegiha languages to the forced assimilation attempts imposed on the people’s ancestors and earlier generations who experienced the boarding school eras that forced the message of “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

ON Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear attended the conference and told attendees the Nation will start its inaugural Osage language immersion classes in the fall semester.

In addition to session discussions, the conference participants enjoyed a Quapaw traditional meal, with favorites also enjoyed by Osages, including corn soup, meat gravy and grape dumplings. The group also had fun midway through the conference by playing several rounds of handgame and having round dances after each game. Lynn and Lookout kept score of the games.

“They always said we would be back again as one – and I believed that,” Lookout said. “We have the same feelings for our ways, we have the same feeling for each other because of the relationships. I used to hear them call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ back when I was little … They could talk their language to each other and understand one another – I seen my father did that – so I want to thank all of you for being here because this is about having a good time, relationships with each other and enjoying the fellowship that we have when we get together like this because we’re family and we’re relatives.” 


Benny Polacca

Original Publish Date: 2015-08-07 00:00:00


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Benny Polacca
Benny Polacca started at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter and has covered various stories and events impacting the Osage Nation and Osage people. Polacca is part of the News team awarded the Native American Journalist Association’s Elias Boudinot Free Press Award in 2014 and other NAJA Media Awards and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter awards for news coverage and photography. Polacca is an Arizona State University graduate and participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. He previously worked at The Forum newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. region as the weeknight reporter.

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