Talking the talk

2008-07-27T00:00:00Z Talking the talkJOSH NELSON, Courier Staff Writer Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
July 27, 2008 12:00 am  • 

TAMA - As careful as can be, preschoolers paste a pink half-circle of paper on top of a larger green shape. A pair of googly eyes and a big beaming smile come next.

The weskita - watermelon in Meskwaki - is complete and happy. Another activity for the students at the Meskwaki Settlement School finished before heading home for the day and another piece of refrigerator art for parents.

The watermelon also links the children to an important and increasingly threatened aspect of their cultural identity.

"Most of the young, they don't come in knowing the language, so we have to teach them," culture teacher Rose Wanatee said.

A large proportion of adult members of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa also grew up knowing little or none of their native tongue. Between half and two-thirds of tribal members did not learn Meskwaki as their primary language.

Some in the tribe now worry the decline of Meskwaki will cause a collapse of other cultural traditions. Language classes for both children and adults are being used to stave off that possibility, which gives some hope for the future.

Traditional speak

Johnathan Buffalo, a tribal historian, believes the Meskwaki language is "healthy" but not entirely safe.

"Anywhere there's a tribal language, there's a always a threat from the outside," he said.

In the past, threats came from other tribes or pressure to assimilate into European-American culture. Buffalo says the latest comes from convenience. It's much easier, he says, to speak English in today's society than to make the effort to speak Meskwaki.

"Just because we learn English doesn't mean we have to stop speaking Meskwaki," Buffalo added.

That's not to say that Meskwaki can't be heard on a day-to-day basis.

In the last U.S. Census in 2000, 591 people in the Midwest claimed they spoke Meskwaki, also known as Fox, in their households. The majority of those speakers - 545 - lived in Iowa, where the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa settlement is situated along the Iowa River in Tama County. About 1,600 people said they were part of that tribe during the census.

Proportionately, that makes Meskwaki one of the stronger indigenous languages in the country.

The Passamaquoddy in northern Maine and the Miccosukee in Florida also have a large number of people who speak their ancestral languages. The Navajo in the Southwest have the most speakers of any language at 173,800 nationwide.

Those statistics can be misleading. Some households may include English-only speakers among the native speakers. Others may be bilingual but the person may not regularly use their native language.

More than 200 native languages are spoken across the country. Only 34 of those are still taught to children as their first language, according to a study by Michael Krauss of the Alaskan Native Language Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. Even among the Navajo, less than a third of children are fluent.

Generational speak

Meskwaki tribal elders say anyone older than 35 learned Meskwaki first. That's not true with younger generations.

Buffalo says the situation depends on families. Some raise children to speak Meskwaki first or simultaneously with English. Others don't teach children any Meskwaki.

What caused the shift to English isn't clear. Some blame technology. Television, radio and video games are all in English, for instance. Others blame federal education policies.

Seventy years ago, when the Meskwaki Settlement founded one of its earliest schools, the tribe's children spoke Meskwaki almost exclusively. Don Wanatee, a tribal elder who was in that first class, said many children were hesitant to go to school because they didn't have a good command of English. That made all subjects challenging, Wanatee said.

"It was difficult. It was a job going to school," he said. "Most of the kids dropped out."

Don Wanatee says from a Meskwaki point of view, English is much more structured, served by adjectives, nouns, adverbs and the like.

"In English, you have to carry around a dictionary," he says. "In Meskwaki, you don't have to carry around anything."

Don Wanatee struggled at times with English until his college years at the University of Iowa, despite also attending school in Waterloo for a few years. The sea change for Wanatee came in 1960, when the Head Start program was introduced nationwide.

While the program brought millions of children into the educational fold, Wanatee says it also had a lasting, negative effect on native languages. Many young children began learning English, which would help them get jobs later in life.

But Don Wanatee notes the program placed less emphasis on many Native American traditions.

Across the nation, many tribes saw a shift to English in the 1970s, according to a 2006 study by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Educational speak

The efforts to document and preserve native languages isn't new for the Meskwakis. In 1911, Truman Michelson of the Smithsonian Institution visited the Meskwaki Settlement after learning the tribe was literate in its own language. Michelson paid tribal members 5 cents a page to write in Meskwaki, which generated more than 26,000 pages of material.

That effort made Meskwaki one of the best documented languages in the country. Ives Goddard, a Smithsonian linguist, says he was able to teach a course based on those written pages without setting foot on the settlement.

Goddard said the language in its written form lacks certain sounds that could differentiate between meanings. Bear could look like loon.

"It can get complicated and there are cases where people get thrown off," he says.

For anyone who knows the spoken language, the written form is just a guide, he says. That's because it is by and large still a spoken language, unlike English, which is systematic.

That can also make Meskwaki a little hard to learn.

"I don't know if there's any language that's easy to learn with late exposure, but Meskwaki would certainly qualify as one of the harder ones because there's so much under it," Goddard said.

Buffalo, the historian, says the tribe hasn't had access to any of that documentation. But that hasn't stopped their revitalization efforts.

The Meskwaki Settlement school focuses heavily on writing systems as a way to unlock the language, teacher Rose Wanatee said. The walls are plastered with pictures of actions with Meskwaki words written below.

Walk: "Be me ka no."

Run: "Ke tti be no no."

Write: "A ne bye i ke no."

Read: "Ka ka no ta no."

Rose Wanatee contends Meskwaki is integral to the tribe's culture.

"I think language is part of who you are," she said. "They don't separate language and culture. It's something that's instilled in us when we're young. We hear it all the time."

Rose Wanatee says many parents, who don't speak the language fluently, are also becoming more engaged. And children often come home to teach parents what they learned.

Christina Blackcloud-Garcia, assistant director of historical preservation, has a recording of her son speaking Meskwaki as her cellphone ringer. It's a nice reminder of her family and culture every time she gets a call.

Rose Wanatee says the key to keeping the language program going is repetition.

"It's a hard language but if we're hearing it all the time, students can catch on," she said.

Settlements across the country use similar approaches. Some, like the Navajos in Arizona, use a full-immersion school where only Navajo is spoken. The students learn English through public schools. Others, like the Pueblos in New Mexico, have community-based programs where students learn through more informal methods.

The Meskwakis also formed language classes for adults who don't know the language or who want to improve their skills.

Blackcloud-Garcia and others are looking at expanding those classes by investigating things like recorded language tapes or possibly interactive computer programs. The federal government has also played a role in recent years of providing grants and funding for revitalization programs. The Meskwakis are kind of on their own, though, since so many speakers are available, Buffalo says.

"The problem with us is we're not dead enough," he says.

Future speak

Many Meskwaki see the program as an important part of reinvigorating the language, but it's not the only key. Parents must also start teaching children early. That imprints Meskwaki, and according to some creates an emotional bond English can't replace.

"There's something special about a group of Meskwakis laughing and telling jokes in Meskwaki," Buffalo said.

The most important part of keeping a language alive, however, may not be instruction, but usage. Goddard, the linguist, said there has to be a "natural context" for a language to be spoken, otherwise the tongue will die as people use the more common language.

"You can go through the day, you can go through the week, you can go through the year and never have to speak it," he said. "So it becomes a matter of choice."

Tribal elders have been bringing younger children into the fold by teaching them about ceremonial dances, rituals and songs. Elder Don Wanatee says the cultural aspect should be played up in school curriculum, too.

"There's nothing wrong with that. It's an Indian school. It's our school," he said.

Robin Roberts, a tribal member, could speak the language fluently when he was a child. When his father died, Roberts and his mother moved off the settlement. Roberts says he forgot he could ever speak Meskwaki.

While Roberts doesn't believe not knowing the language makes him less of Meskwaki, he does believe the language plays an important role in tribal society.

"Their parents should be speaking to them in Meskwaki, just like my dad did," Roberts said.

Younger generations have had problems with using their language on a day-to-day basis, in part because of fear of being ridiculed for mispronouncing a word in front of elders.

Buffalo says that is one of the obstacles to overcome before it's too late.

"If we lose our language, that generation will look back and ask 'Who dropped the ball?'"

Title: Meskwaki language

Date: Jul. 24th, 2008

Johnathan Buffalo, director of historical preservation for the Meskwaki Nation, tells us why it is important to the Meskwakis to keep the language alive.

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Contact Josh Nelson at (319) 291-1565 or

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