'You learn your own language first'
Tribal college hosts 2nd annual Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute
By Kevin Abourezk
MACY, Nebraska – To Mabel Hamilton, identity was everything.
When the Omaha Nation
woman found out her granddaughter was planning to study Spanish at college, she called the 19-year-old woman home to Macy.
Vanessa Hamilton visited her grandmother at her nursing home.
“I was 19 years old, and I was scared to death of my grandma,” she said.
As she sat down with her grandmother, Mabel gave her a stern look.
“You learn your own language first,” she said.
Vanessa Hamilton, a citizen of the Omaha Nation, took part in the 2nd annual Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute at the Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, Nebraska. She hopes to become an Omaha language teacher. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
So Vanessa Hamilton did, taking Omaha language classes at the Nebraska Indian Community College
for several years.
Today, the 50-year-old woman is studying education and wants to become a teacher at UmonHon Nation Public School
in Macy. And she works in the business office at the Nebraska Indian Community College, where nearly 100 people participated in the Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute
The 2nd annual event was held July 16-20 and included Omaha language classes for beginner through intermediate-level speakers. All classes were free, and some could be taken for college credit.
Courses included lessons in simple conversation, basic sentence structure, grammar, phonetics and Omaha culture.
Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Omaha Tribe Seeks to Revitalize Language
Inside a corrugated steel building at the college campus last week, four women sat at long tables beading. A tipi set up the day before stood just outside the building’s front door, and the sound of children playing outside could be heard from inside where Pat Phillips, a 76-year-old Omaha woman, taught the beading class.
She taught the Omaha language at UmonHon Nation for 10 years before retiring this past spring, though she plans to return this fall as a part-time teacher.
The Omaha language is taught in almost every grade, kindergarten through 12th-grade, at the school, she said.
She said she learned the language from her parents, but forgot it after attending an Indian boarding school in Flandreau, South Dakota, as a young girl. Unlike administrators at other Indian boarding schools, the staff in Flandreau didn’t punish her for speaking Omaha.
“We just didn’t speak it,” she said. “We just left it at home.”
Participants of the Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute take part in a talking circle. The 2nd annual event was held July 16-20, 2018, at the Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
She began learning it again after returning to the reservation in 1986. She is now considered a passive learner, meaning she understands Omaha but can’t speak it.
She said it was often difficult to teach the language to children at UmonHon Nation. Most didn’t seem interested and often forgot their language lessons during their summer breaks, she said.
“It’s not spoken in the homes,” she said.
Donald Grant, 77, said he also learned to speak Omaha from his parents but became discouraged from using it after being ridiculed by a tribal leader for saying his Omaha name wrong.
“Ever since that time – I was 6 or 7 years old – I never spoke another word until just recently,” he said.
Now it’s his goal to learn to speak Omaha fluently before he dies.
Pat Phillips, a 76-year-old citizen of the Omaha Tribe, learned Omaha from her parents but forgot it after attending an Indian boarding school. “We just didn’t speak it,” she said at the 2nd annual Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute in Macy, Nebraska, last week. “We just left it at home.” Photo by Kevin Abourezk
At 77 years of age, Omaha Nation citizen Donald Grant aims to speak Omaha fluently. “It’s a big goal, but I think I can achieve it," Grant said at the 2nd annual Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute in Macy, Nebraska, last week. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
“I’m at the end of my life, and I want to learn how to speak fluently,” he said. “It’s a big goal, but I think I can achieve it. You’re not complete until you do learn how to speak your language.”
The Omaha Tribe
had as many as 30 fluent speakers four years ago but only has about 16 now, Vanessa Hamilton said. Some have speculated that the tribe’s language is on the verge of extinction.
“I don’t believe that personally,” Hamilton said. “I think we still have hope that we can revitalize our language and get more people going with it.”
Children are learning the language in Head Start through high school, as well as at the college. The language has been documented in several books, including The Omaha Language and the Omaha Way
by the late Mark Awakuni-Swetland
Posters offering Omaha language lessons hang inside the Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, Nebraska, during the 2nd annual Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Others have begun developing language curriculum to be used in the schools, and some have even discussed the possibility of establishing a language immersion program, Hamilton said.
She said her language is part of her identity as an Omaha woman. Those who don’t know their language or culture often seek out other identities, she said.
“Young people, if they don’t know their identity, they get lost,” she said. “They try to identify as like gangster or whatever, and that’s not them.”
She’s begun teaching her 18-month-old grandson to say simple words like face and nose and phrases like “let’s go.”
She said she remembers the first time she sat down with her grandmother to learn Omaha from her.
“I was scared to talk, and my grandma said, ‘Just talk. I can correct you. I can help you along if you need it.’”
Two women bead during the Umónhon-Pónka Summer Institute last week at the Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy. The 2nd annual event was held July 16-20, 2018, and included Omaha language classes. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
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