Church urged to help preserve Native American language and culture

By staff writers
October 12, 2007

Native American languages have been under "extreme and direct attack" for generations and many are in danger of extinction, the director of a project working to save the Euchee language has told United Methodists in the USA.

Richard Grounds, project director of the Euchee (Yu-chee) Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, works with the five remaining fluent Euchee speakers left in the United States. His daughter, Renee, a board member of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, has dedicated her life to helping him keep the language alive - reports UMC's Kathy Gilbert.

Speaking in Euchee, Renee introduced her father to members of the commission at Ware Chapel United Methodist Church before his presentation on the project.

Commission members were taking a day during their 3-7 October 2007 board meeting in Oklahoma City to visit Kiowa Native American United Methodist churches and to hear from Native American United Methodists.

Caroline Botone and Henry Joseph Willis greeted the group in their native languages of Kiowa and Choctaw.

"This is really a pretty special event," Grounds said. "We are hearing from our elders at this meeting in their own languages. This is what their mother spoke to them, and that's why they speak it to you."

Grounds said the World War II generation still speaks their native languages, and most of that generation is slowly dying, taking the languages with them.

"In this state where 25 indigenous languages are still spoken, only four of those are being learned by children; all the rest are only spoken by elders," he said. "The words you heard from my daughter, Renee, speaking the language of my grandmother are extremely unusual."

The commission funded Grounds' Euchee project from 2000-2004 through the Minority Group Self-Determination Fund. The fund was established by The United Methodist Church to empower racial and ethnic minority people within and outside the church.

The tradition of passing down native languages was "crushed through a very ugly, sorted, intentional process" that took young people out of the tribes and put them in boarding schools where they were forced to speak English.

"I would guess billions of dollars were spent destroying our languages, breaking down our ceremonial ways, assaulting our traditions," he said.

Churches have been complicit in the dispossession of Native Americans, he said. He told the group that Methodism founder John Wesley came to Georgia in 1835 and met the Creeks, Muskogee, Chickasaws and Euchee. Wesley wrote "really ugly things about these native nations," Grounds said.

"But he really saved his most cruel remarks for the Euchees, saying that the Euchees killed their own children - things that were not really true and things he didn't really have a basis for making the claims," Grounds said.

"Colonialism is taking other people's resources to service your own interest. It's taking the richness of others in order to build your own wealth. It was a fairly ugly process. In the context of the United States, it was done under the name of U.S. expansion, a lot of patriotic fanfare, often with a Christian veneer over it."

The use of Native American mascots and names points to the same thinking today that says "if it's Indian, it's ours. It's no longer just the resources. It's no longer just the land. It's literally the name. It's literally the identity," he said.

"We want our young people to be proud of their languages."

Globally, Grounds said, the next 20 years likely will see the loss of half of the world's languages and, in the United States, about 70 percent of indigenous languages are projected to die out.

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