Dhegiha language speakers gather for first-ever conference
September 07, 2011

Speakers of Osage and other tribes with Dhegihan dialect meet, network
Ardina Moore says she and her fellow Quapaw people are pleased with the tribe’s Las Vegas Strip-style casino resort but there are more important things the people must consider: their tribe’s first language, for example.

“We are proud of this casino, but to me, our language and culture are more important,” Moore said during the Dhegiha Gathering language conference held at Downstream Casino Resort.

The conference is the first ever gathering of tribes whose languages comes from the Dhegiha linguistic family which comprises Osage, Omaha, Ponca, Kaw and Quapaw.

At 80 years of age, Moore (also Osage) is the Quapaw language program director and like other Native language instructors and enthusiasts, she is concerned about her people, especially younger generations, carrying on the language. “I teach as best I can,” she said, adding she tells young people: “One-hundred years from now, people are going to ask: ‘what are these people known for?’ Do we want them to say ‘well, they have a casino?’”

“Anybody who has the desire to learn should learn their language,” Moore said. “To me, nothing is more important, I don’t know how much longer I have like the rest of us.”

Moore’s thoughts are among the dialogue and lectures shared during the two-day conference of language speakers from the Dhegiha tribes. The conference, hosted by the Osage Nation Language Department, was held Aug. 2-3 at the three-year-old casino resort, which sits just inside northeast Oklahoma’s corner boundary.

Herman “Mogri” Lookout, who is the first ON language department director since the 31st Tribal Council created it, also noted the concern in having few language speakers. “Our elders are gone, they could speak our language. It may not be passed down generation-to-generation, that’s when the white man could say: ‘that’s an endangered language.’”

Lookout praised the efforts of language instructors who, like the Osage, are working to prevent their languages from going extinct. “This is the last group of people who can do that. I want our children to be able to speak their languages – those are my prayers.”

Alice Saunsoci, 73, Omaha, teaches her tribe’s language at Nebraska Indian Community College, and said she is thankful for her language when she spoke during the conference.

“It makes me feel like somebody,” she said adding it wasn’t always easy learning the language. Saunsoci recalled an incident, when she was younger, where she mispronounced a word numerous times during a public speaking engagement. She didn’t expect other Omahas to be present but there were two of them sitting in the corner laughing, she said. “We make mistakes, but we laugh” and move on, she said.

Saunsoci also expressed gratitude for the Dhegiha Gathering because it mirrors a story she was once told by elders who said the Dhegihan language speakers once met by a river before the tribes went separate ways. “We are going to be together again – downstream,” Saunsoci was told. “Here we are now.”

During the conference, the language speakers and instructors shared their struggles and triumphs in sharing and teaching their respective languages with their people.

Caesar Williams, Ponca, 68, teaches small groups in Tulsa the Ponca language. “I’m still in my infancy at my age in learning the Ponca language. I look at it as ‘this is going to help people learn our language.’”

“Sometimes there’s only one other student in the group at times,” said Williams, “but I’m the only teacher in Tulsa keeping this nucleus together.”

Louis Headman, director of the Ponca Tribe’s Language Department, said his program developed a curriculum for teaching the language and is developing lesson plans.

Headman, whose grandmother lived to be more than 100-years-old and spoke Ponca to him, felt honored he was asked by the tribal government to direct the language program for the people. “It’s great to have someone say ‘we want you to come and teach our language,’” he said.

Lookout said he was pleased with the conference turnout and dialogue. “It’s all about networking. I think it was positive in that we have a common thing that we’re looking for – to be ‘one’ again.”

He said a second Dhegiha Gathering would be considered.