A nation’s mother tongue restored through its children

In Oklahoma, Osage Nation’s Cultural Learning Center is revitalizing language and culture

When we forget a word, we’ve got abundant resources—a parent, a teacher, an online dictionary—to jog our memory.

For the Osage Nation, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, it’s not nearly that simple.

“Only about 12 elders remain that are fluent in Osage,” says Christy RedEagle, marketing specialist and member of Osage Nation. “We risk losing it entirely in the coming years if we don’t do something about it now.”

The Midwestern nation operates an immersion school to enrich its culture and instill traditional learnings in students, but it’s not enough. The community has seen a decline in fluent Osage speakers and is putting forth efforts to revitalize the native language.

To reverse the issue, the Cultural Learning Center was created as an extension of the immersion school. Here, Osage Nation members teach the native Osage language, culture and STEM activities to students aged 3 through the 12th grade.

And who best to retain new languages?

“Children really are sponges, and we want them to carry the language on for generations,” says RedEagle. “I find my own nieces and nephews know more Osage than I do.”

The language program is offered after school hours to both kids and their parents, many of whom RedEagle says have spent most of their lives with limited knowledge of Osage themselves.

She’s noticed the bonding between parents and children in class and says the program encourages an environment where families can practice Osage at home.

“People are really excited about this program. The reception is great,” she says.

Osage Nation’s twelve fluent speakers and others from the language department have the lofty goal of returning the language to its nation.

This year, Enbridge gave $5,000 to Osage Nation Immersion School’s Cultural Learning Center to maintain qualified staff and provide materials for cultural teachings. We also supported Osage Nation’s Oil and Gas Summit in 2018 as part of our commitment to improving the quality of life near our operations.

RedEagle says that without the program, she fears children would lose the language completely by high school.

“It really starts with our youth, and we need them to continue the traditions on to their children and grandchildren.”

She has also noticed that neighboring Native American tribes are starting similar programs with concerted effort to preserve their culture, saying “no one” wants to lose their language.

RedEagle’s favorite part of the program has been the children’s reception and swiftness in learning: “I just love hearing the kids speak to each other in Osage. It’s sounds so natural.”

(TOP PHOTO: Members of the Osage Nation, circa 1890, from a U.S. Army photograph. The Osage Nation has launched a language program at its Cultural Learning Center to revitalize its culture and mother tongue.)