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Language Department ‘Creating an Osage World’

“At what point are we going to have so many things out there that people are going to feel motivated or compelled, to not just learn the writing system, but learn the language?” - Braxton Redeagle, Osage Language Department director.

The Osage Nation Language Department has gotten an authentic version of Wahzhazhe ie, the Osage language, into Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” created a series of apps and videos for language learners and—this past year alone—they offered 21 community classes for Osages everywhere. That’s in addition to holding classes at local public schools as well as for WELA and Daposka Ahnkodapi staff.

The Language Department is doing a lot, and “much more is coming,” said Director Braxton Redeagle. As part of all these efforts, they are working toward a major goal of creating fluent speakers, and one question Redeagle is asking is just how they are going to do that.

This spring, Redeagle filled in for Dr. Herman Mongrain Lookout’s advanced Edmond class while the master teacher, who historically led the development of the Wahzhazhe ie orthography, recovered from an illness. Lookout’s advanced students learned from Redeagle that he was trying to “project an Osage grammar,” something he later confirmed in an interview with Osage News. He emphasized he wanted to make sure students can generate speech with a normalized, correct grammar as a result of their exposure to language curriculum, rather than repeat memorized curriculum. As the students showed him they were on track to do so, Redeagle began the task of attempting to refine their grammar.

The Language Department is, perhaps, in a “refining” era. As Redeagle said, “We are refining the delivery of our classes, creating curriculum, incorporating technology, publishing more content, and expanding our database, among many other things.” Their main focus at the moment is to make a more effective infrastructure of language learning resources in order to make language learning more accessible, he said. This ties to their long-term goal of creating fluent speakers.

Braxton Redeagle teaches the Osage Language at the Northern California Osage Gathering held in Cotati, Calif., at the Veterans Memorial Building on May 20, 2023. ECHO REED/Osage News

According to a definition of fluency that Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear encountered during interviews with other tribes who created fluent speakers through revitalization efforts, the Language Department still has a long way to go. “The Seminoles asked me day before yesterday,” said Standing Bear, “‘How many fluent speakers do you have?’ I said, ‘Well, how do you define fluency?’ They said, ‘Speak all day in your language.’”

Standing Bear noted Osage speakers Janice Carpenter, Stephanie Rapp, Talee Redcorn and Mogri Lookout, but then admitted that those Osages do not necessarily practice speaking the language all day long. As Redeagle said, there can be a “block” when it comes to speaking. “Maybe you all can help me with that,” he said in remarks to Lookout’s class, who enjoy attempts at free-flowing conversation even if their expressions are not yet perfected.

Standing Bear noted the strategy of Cochiti Pueblos, whose Keres Learning Center approaches the “block” to speaking by simply allowing no English. “When you walk into their Keres learning center, they say no English … the children go out in the playground. The Governor, who is like a chief, took me out to the plaza and said, ‘We’ve been here over a thousand years but we’re not going to lose this language on my watch. But we’re losing them when they [leave school].’”

In addition to Pueblos, Standing Bear has also consulted Hawaiians and Maoris on their approach, he said. “Over there, the non-Natives speak Maori, they’ve gotten in down that far—so it can be done.” The Language Department, he noted, has created a lot of good material, and it’s compelling him to go back and learn more of the language himself. “I’m going to try to get back to where I was. I really want to pick it up and learn, we have so much material.”

“My father’s generation, they gave up, and my grandfather’s generation, they said, ‘Why are you trying to learn Osage? Learn Spanish.’” But now, said the chief, many in the tribe are ready to embrace the language which was so long oppressed. Redeagle is providing them with tools to learn.

The key, Redeagle said, is moving beyond people’s want to learn the language, and creating an environment that compels them. “At what point are we going to have so many things out there that people are going to feel motivated or compelled, to not just learn the writing system but learn the language?” he asked.

Redeagle’s word, “‘compelled,’” he explained, “comes with almost a sense of either obligation or necessity … If you’re surrounded by so much of the language, you’re going to be missing out on the majority of your surroundings. So, at that point it’s not a matter of whether you want to or not, it’s okay if you want to navigate some of these things, then you need to know it.”

The question the tribe is considering now is how best to get there. “We want people to learn to speak, to be fluent, that’s what we’re shooting for. No matter how realistic of a goal that is, that’s what we want. We want the language to be spoken fluently by all of our people. But the reality of the situation is, those are our goals and our vision. Not all community members feel compelled to take up the language, and the ones that do don’t necessarily share that goal, because they’re compelled to learn for their own personal reasons.”

Two common reasons people come to language class is because they want to learn to pray or introduce themselves, Redeagle said. “They might be in a position where they might have to say something in public. There’s nothing more compelling to learn the language than being in a situation where the language is expected. Everyone has their own reasons.”

One of the Language Department’s priorities is expanding language use focus areas into all areas of life, rather than restricting curriculum to certain popular use scenarios. “If you say a prayer or introduce yourself, you’re going to be repeatedly talking with a small group of particular words, phrases or things in a controlled environment that you can simply memorize with some degree of variation. It’s a good foundation, but you would need to understand the pieces and how they work in order to project it, to say something novel or in a different situation.”

While Osage revitalization efforts have not yet reached their goal of fluency, Redeagle said that new content from the language department will help people engage with Osage in many different areas of vocabulary. “We’re trying to create an Osage world [of language], and surround and immerse people with the language in various ways, in different forms of media, through our ways of thinking intertwined with culture.”

“So, if you’re watching one of our videos, you will get that combination of language and culture … people may only be watching to see themselves or their relatives, or to learn something specific about our culture but bringing the language to that space is a way that we can put it into their lives and attach it to something interesting and meaningful.”

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Chelsea T. Hicks
Chelsea T. Hickshttps://osagenews.org
Title: Staff Reporter
Email: chelsea.hicks@osagenation-nsn.gov
Languages spoken: English
Chelsea T. Hicks’ past reporting includes work for Indian Country Today, SF Weekly, the DCist, the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Connection Newspapers, Aviation Today, Runway Girl Network, and elsewhere. She has also written for literary outlets such as the Paris Review, Poetry, and World Literature Today. She is Wahzhazhe, of Pawhuska District, belonging to the Tsizho Washtake, and is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Cyprian Tayrien, Rosalie Captain Chouteau, Chief Pawhuska I, and her iko Betty Elsey Hicks. Her first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, won the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. She holds an MA from the University of California, Davis, and an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
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