An upstream battle: Revitalizing Umónhon

TheOmahaSpeaking

I could spill a lot of ink (well, use a lot of pixels) writing about endangered languages, and the reasons why language revitalization, or at least preservation, is crucial. But I’ll spare you today, dear readers. I will say in summary that linguistic diversity is both culturally/anthropologically important, and significant to the study of human cognition. It’s culturally important because speakers of a particular language have stored within it their traditions, history, social norms, and scientific knowledge (e.g. medicine, botany); when their tongue dies, many key aspects of their cultural identity and world knowledge disappear. It’s important for studying the human cognitive capacity, because the more languages we can examine, the better informed are our conclusions on cross-linguistic universals and differences – conclusions which, in turn, help us understand how the mind works.

Today, instead of a lengthy psycho-socio-historical dissertation, I want to give a short  example of one currently endangered language and the revitalization efforts around it. This language is Umónhon, of the Omaha Tribe in Macy, Nebraska.

Here is a 2015 article in the Omaha World-Herald: Omaha Tribe members trying to revitalize an ‘endangered language’.

Highlights from the article:

  • The Omaha Tribe has more than 7,000 members.
  • Only twelve fluent speakers of Umónhon are left (and none of them are under age 70).
  • Umónhon means “upstream people” or “against the current” (this particular tribe traveled north up the Missouri River). Umónhon morphed into Omaha, the name given to them by white settlers.
  • People of the tribe spoke Umónhon widely until the mid-20th century, when boarding schools began forcing students to speak only English.
  • Recent educational efforts have been difficult. The language barely has a written form; there are no textbooks; funding to develop materials and programs is scarce; and interest and retention among young students is low.
  • While the tribe waits for further funding or help from other tribes, some parents are taking the initiative to teach their children Umónhon.

Since 2015, efforts have ramped up. Last year, the community held a language bootcamp.

And now there’s a new documentary out about the tribe’s language and culture. No info on the film’s release yet, but you can watch the trailer: “The Omaha Speaking”.

The Omaha may never go back to speaking Umónhon as extensively as they once did. Still, these achievements make my language gland tingle with hope.