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University helps American Indians learn to save their languages

The Breath of Life project is a joint effort by experts from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Oklahoma in which linguists mentor American Indians so they can better recover endangered languages.
BY DIANE SMITH, McClatchy Newspapers Published: June 9, 2011
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Hutke Fields pictures a time when younger generations of Natchez people use his tribe's native tongue at ceremonies, while sharing oral histories and during everyday talk at home.

But Field's vision is complicated by the fact that only six people, out of about 10,000 members of the Natchez tribe in Oklahoma, still speak the language.

"We'll lose it if we don't use it," said Fields, who received assistance last year during a workshop dedicated to helping American Indian communities in Oklahoma to bring back disappearing languages.

Fields is a participant in the Breath of Life project — a joint effort by experts from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Oklahoma — in which linguists mentor American Indians so they can better recover endangered languages.

It is modeled after a project at the University of California, Berkeley.

"We are growing field linguists," said Colleen Fitzgerald, associate professor and chairwoman of UT Arlington's Linguistics Department. "We are transferring knowledge to community members so they can teach their own languages."

The first workshop was held in summer 2010 at OU in Norman, which is also the site of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Members of three American Indian communities took part: the Osage, Otoe and Natchez.

Linguists and American Indians will be able to work together again next May. The project recently got a funding boost that will allow for a second workshop, Fitzgerald said.

The project team received a total of $90,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that helps support research at colleges and universities.

The grant is spread over two years.

Besides training American Indian community members to be linguists on the ground, UT Arlington will be working to create linguistic databases that will ultimately enable the creation of online dictionaries and collections of texts in various languages, Fitzgerald said.

Each community will have a database which will also be stored in a repository at the Noble museum.

Oklahoma was described as a "hot spot" of linguistic diversity by experts in National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project, said Mary Linn, associate curator of American Indian languages at the Noble museum and an associate professor of anthropology at OU.

As North America was settled by whites, many tribes were forced to move to Oklahoma.

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