CARNEGIE, OKLAHOMA — “Séndé àñ:hêl… Séndé came along…”
That’s the opening of every story told among the Kiowa Tribe about Séndé, a name that means trickster. (The Kiowa Tribe is called Cáuigù in the Kiowa language.)
Séndé stories are especially repeated during the winter, when the Kiowa traditionally gather in the evenings to pass along cultural knowledge and tribal history.
Historically, those gatherings during winter evenings featured Séndé stories told in the Kiowa language, which has slowly been dying out over the past 200 years, especially during times when Kiowa children were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to boarding schools, where the Kiowa language was banned.
Many ceremonies practiced by tribal communities across the continent were outlawed by the U.S. government, which feared that those gatherings would spark uprisings. Now, the Kiowa language is considered by ethnographers to be dying, with its only fluent speakers past childbearing age.
Today, the Kiowa Tribe is using federal dollars to revive their language and culture. A major portion of that revival is happening through the Kiowa Language and Culture Revitalization Program’s outreach events.
“Our culture and language, that’s what makes us unique – that’s what makes us a tribe,” says Amie Tah-bone, director of the Kiowa Language and Culture Revitalization Program.
The tribe’s most recent efforts to revitalize its language are funded by a five-year federal grant, originally awarded in 2016. The tribe’s grant award for the 2017 fiscal year was just over $380,000, but the award amount could change each year, according to a spokesperson with the Administration for Native Americans, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
With the money, the tribe is training 25 Kiowa teachers to work closely with tribal elders to learn the Kiowa language and develop a curriculum to teach it to the tribe’s children. Four other tribes received similar grants to hire teachers and revitalize their languages.
So far, 10 Kiowa teachers have been hired, Tah-bone says. Each is specializing in a different educational level.
“At the end of this project, if you have a child coming into [the preschool program] Head Start, they’ll be learning Kiowa all the way until they graduate,” Tah-bone says. “Even then, they’ll be able to go out into the community and find a language class. So there will always be this steady stream of learning Kiowa. This is how we will try and bring it back.”
The goal is to have classes and other opportunities to learn throughout the year. But for now, it’s during the winter, when the ground freezes and nature pauses, that the Kiowa language comes to life through tribal stories told for generations.
Amanda Hill, GPJ Tribal Nations
During storytelling events held this year and at the end of 2017, groups of Kiowa children were given Séndé stories written in the Kiowa language. Language teachers and tribal elders helped the children learn to pronounce each word and act out the stories.
At first, the children stumbled through the lines, giggling at their peers’ mistakes and their own awkwardness when they tried to speak the language. But with more practice and encouragement from the teachers, they gained confidence. The language began to take root.
Juanita Daugomah Ahtone, 89, is among the Kiowa elders mentoring the language teachers. It’s a challenge to pass the language along, she says, because it didn’t historically have a written form.
“When I was growing up and we’d write notes to each other, we’d use phonetics,” she says.
Ahtone says she was born in a tent on her maternal grandmother’s land near Carnegie, Oklahoma. She spoke both English and Kiowa, so she served as an interpreter for her older relatives.
Amanda Hill, GPJ Tribal Nations
Now, as a mentor for Kiowa language teachers, Ahtone has tools that weren’t available when she was younger. The language now has a written system – an orthography – that standardizes spelling and phonetics. Parker McKenzie, a Kiowa, created the orthography before his death in 1999, so the language-learning method the tribe uses is often referred to as the McKenzie Method.
The language program also hosts singing sessions, during which elders share tribal songs and teach the proper protocols related to the use of the drum.
Ernest “Iron” Toppah, a Kiowa song leader who participated in the events, has been singing at tribal ceremonies for more than 60 years.
“I was always told, ‘You better learn these songs especially,’” he says. “I didn’t pay much attention. I had elders; I didn’t have to worry about it.”
Still, Toppah learned what he could. Then, seemingly overnight, those elders passed on.
Now, he says, he’s one of just a handful of elders who knows many of the old songs. He eagerly teaches them to any tribal members willing to learn.
The goal of the program, Tah-bone says, is to help kids feel comfortable speaking the language as they learn it.
“This is a good opportunity to come together to learn in an environment where it’s easy to learn,” she says. “They won’t be nervous or have to face any criticism. It’s very free and inviting.”
Audio provided by Phil “Joe Fish” Dupoint, a Kiowa historian and a program coordinator with the Kiowa Language and Culture Revitalization Program.