The Sam Noble Museum’s Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair has received a grant to support future Indigenous language revitalization efforts in Oklahoma.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation children are among the thousands of students from across Oklahoma who gather at the Norman, Oklahoma, museum to showcase their knowledge of their ancestral language. A $20,000 grant will help organizers expand the 2024 event.

The language fair is held in early April at the Sam Noble Museum on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. It is free and open to the public.

The funds will help the museum increase the language fair’s visibility as well as provide additional creative opportunities.

“Goals for this funding include budgeting for more high-profile speakers at the event, increased outreach and partnership with local schools and tribal organizations and including an interactive language and print-making workshop/demonstration on both days of the fair,” said Alexander Mann, Sam Noble Museum.

CPN Language Department Director Justin Neely is excited that the boost provided by the grant will expand the fair’s offerings and encourage more people to participate.

“One thing I’ve noticed different this year is they have a lot more categories,” he said. “They have one for short video, something that you might put on TikTok. I’ve noticed there are a lot more options.”

Another part of the 2024 event that Neely is looking forward to is the addition of speakers. He said Mosiah Bluecloud (Kickapoo), is expected to speak at this year’s event. Bluecloud previously taught Sauk (Sac & Fox) and Kickapoo in Oklahoma before earning his master’s degree in linguistics. Bluecloud is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona and is a highly sought after consultant on language projects.

Neely said Bluecloud and other speakers will likely share insights that are helpful for many attendees, who either teach language or coordinate their nation’s language program.

Mann said the grant will help meet current and future demands for language revitalization programs.

“Apart from an expected dip during the pandemic years, the language fair has been pretty consistent about seeing growing attendance year over year, so I think it’s accurate to say there is a growing demand for language revitalization,” Mann said. “The grant specifically aims to help us increase outreach and participation even further, supporting the fair’s goals to enrich the education of students, increase awareness of the diversity of Native American languages, and provide supportive social interactions for students to make discovering Native culture a positive and encouraging experience.”

Neely agrees with Mann that the demand for language revitalization will continue to grow.

“Most people, I think, would agree that we’re in that seventh generation where we’re trying to pick up those things that have kind of been left behind and trying to bring our languages forward into the future,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes, but I think languages are a critical point for most tribes, where they’re down to their last few (first-language) speakers. But I’m kind of a glass half full guy so I look at it more like, all we have is up.”

Driving growth may be the increasing visibility of Indigenous languages in popular media, such as movies, television and more. Recently, Blackfeet actress Lily Gladstone won a Golden Globe award for her role in Killers of the Flower Moon and included Blackfeet in her acceptance speech. The Disney streaming service premiered Echo, a series focusing on a Choctaw youth that included the Choctaw language.

“I think that’s wonderful. I think it makes the language visible. It makes people realize that we’re still here. We haven’t disappeared. We’re still trying to practice our traditional ways. We’re still trying to keep our culture going and keeping it alive and looking to the future,” Neely said.

Over the past few years, the language fair has offered several benefits to Neely’s staff. They enjoy networking with other language teachers.

“We don’t have a lot of opportunities in Oklahoma to gather with other language programs and kind of pick each other’s brains. I’m a big believer that we don’t have to always remake the wheel. Oftentimes if something works for one tribe, it will definitely work for another,” he said. “It helps to bring all of these different language programs, language instructors together where you can kind of talk shop a little bit.”

Most of all, he’s proud the event offers CPN a chance to highlight their language learners.

“It gives us a chance to really highlight these young people and encourage them because, obviously we want those young people to start picking up the language and take pride in it. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to do that for them. It’s a chance for these kids to get that encouragement that’s really helpful,” Neely said.

The next level

Neely said he hopes in the future, the fair will discuss how to implement technology into language programs. At CPN, the use of Zoom, Facebook and other programs have helped the Tribe reach its citizens who live far from Tribal headquarters.

“I could see offering some help for how to set up different free language programs because there are places where you can make free courses and there’s free content you can put out, like on YouTube and stuff like that,” he said. “But you have to know how to (use the technology).”

He also advocates for exploring different teaching styles.

“We could look at things like TPR or total physical response, or TPRS, total physical response storytelling. TPRS is a style of teaching that involves, immersion teaching. It’s basically using a story to act things out,” Neely said.

Beginning learners

Neely encourages Potawatomi who are new learners to start small and include Bodéwadmimwen as part of their daily routine. This will also encourage their children and grandchildren to use the language as well.

“If you learn hello, start using Bozho in your house. You don’t have to speak in complete sentences. As you learn words and concepts just try to incorporate them into your house. In my house we never say water, we always say Mbish,” he said.

Several projects are in development in Neely’s office to help incorporate Bodéwadmimwen into households. One will use QR codes to identify and sound out the words for common household objects, such as furniture or cooking utensils.

“Whatever you learn, whatever you can pick up, try it out, use it with your kids,” he said. “If you need certain words or concepts, don’t be afraid to reach out to your Language Department. We’re happy to help people.”

Neely pointed out that all language learners are welcome at the language fair, not just instructors and youth, and he encouraged more people to attend.

“Language is really a defining principle and what it means to be Indigenous. It’s part of our ancestry. It’s part of our pride in who we are. But it’s also one of the defining characteristics that makes us a unique people,” he said.

For more information about learning Bodéwadmimwen, visit the Language Department.