Tribal Chief Ben Barnes declared a state of emergency in January 2020, saying that if the tribe didn’t preserve its language, it could mean “losing the voices of our grandparents forever … we cannot wait to act until there is a better time, more favorable conditions.” Two Shawnee elders died of COVID-19 this past year, Joel Barnes said, and a third died of natural causes at age 99. The pandemic prompted a sense of urgency to teach younger generations the tribe’s language and culture before it’s too late. Joel Barnes, who’s the chief’s brother, enlisted the help of Jessica Somerville-Braun and other Shawnee educators. As an associate professor of education studies, Somerville-Braun – who lives in New York – helped craft the curriculum for the language classes. “With this setup, you get a chance to practice the vocabulary, the pronunciation and also the meaning,” she said, which gives students more practice with the pronunciation and makes learning the language less intimidating.
State of Emergency – Executive order from the Office of the Chief of the Shawnee Tribe. pic.twitter.com/4wlTW0Qx6P— Chief Ben Barnes (@ChiefBarnes) March 13, 2020
The switch to virtual language classes helped educators reach members of the tribe across the country. Somerville-Braun, whose grandmother was the last of her family to live in Oklahoma, said remote learning expanded the reach of the program. “It’s an opportunity to connect much more closely and to learn language and culture and be part of this community in a way that wasn’t possible before these online classes started,” Somerville-Braun said. No longer limited by proximity to a classroom, tribal members from California, Virginia and elsewhere logged on to online language classes. In-person classes used to have 10 to 12 students per class. But online, 15 to 20 students log in for each class, and more watch recordings on the Shawnee Language Program’s Facebook page, which has more than 700 followers. But these classes represented more than learning phonetics and piecing them together. Raina Heaton, an assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma, said preserving Indigenous languages is a form of sovereignty. “Reclaiming one’s heritage language is an important component of cultural expression, familial ties and, here in North America, national pride,” Heaton said. Due to colonization and the cultural genocide of many Native Americans, the Shawnee are one of the few tribes that still have tribal ceremonies, Joel Barnes said. “A lot of tribes don’t have a cultural connection. They may have their language, but they don’t have anything culturally to tie it to,” he said. boarding school history in Arizona, where the Phoenix Indian Industrial School opened in 1891. An overhead light shines on a mint-green barber’s chair where Native American children sat to have their long hair cut by school administrators. Words on the wall behind it tell the story of children who lost their hair, their clothes – and their identities. Somerville-Braun said being a part of the education of new Shawnee speakers has helped her feel more connected to her culture, even though she is thousands of miles from Oklahoma. “It was something that – because of my family’s history where we’ve been disconnected for so long – wasn’t something that I ever really sought out or felt like I could do or should do,” she said. “I felt like this invitation helped me to understand the reason I’m disconnected is because of the forces of colonization and assimilation. And, if I wanted to be connected, I could push back against that history and those forces.” This story was produced in collaboration with the Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Unmasking America,” a national reporting project on the lingering toll of COVID-19 scheduled for publication in August. Check out the project’s blog here. For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.
Eastern Shawnee History Summit 2015: untagged: William Rice TU, Steve Warren UIowa, Cathleen Osbourne-Gowey UCBoulder pic.twitter.com/GKkpNDk8RI— Shawnee Language (@shawneelanguage) September 23, 2015
Note: This story originally appeared on Cronkite News. It is published via a Creative Commons license. Cronkite News is produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Native America Calling: Native tennis players hold court
‘We’re all shook up’: Violence mars inter-tribal gathering in New Mexico
Native America Calling: Comanche warriors battle Predator in Hulu’s “Prey”
Montana Free Press: Film explores ‘Lost Bird’ who found her way home
Pokagon Band pays tribute to Rep. Jackie Walorski following fatal crash
Native America Calling: Native college students tell their stories
National Indian Gaming Commission set to announce tribal casino revenues
Native America Calling: Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial Centennial
Cronkite News: Nation’s teachers in health crisis
StrongHearts Native Helpline: The harmful effects of colonization on Native communities
Gaylord News: Freedmen continue to press for citizenship rights in tribal nations
Clara Caufield: I will see you again Tim Giago
Native Sun News Today: Tim Giago carved out a lasting legacy in Indian Country
Albert Bender: We are tired of ‘thoughts and prayers’ when it comes to gun violence