In Oklahoma, these language lessons are key to the cultural landscape

Pawnee Nation incorporates linguistics, history, dance, food and art in its cultural preservation efforts

There are precious few Pawnee speakers left in Oklahoma. But for those who do, the language itself tells a fascinating tale.

“Our language is very descriptive. Our words for certain things would indicate what they were seeing at the time, and give you an idea of when things were introduced from the Western world,” says Matt Reed, historic preservation officer with the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.

“Take the word fork, which in Pawnee is sîstačara’. What you’re literally saying is ‘double awl,’ like a sewing awl. In American history, the early 19th century is pretty much the only period you would have seen forks with two prongs,” adds Reed. “It’s very specific. It tells you when that English object worked its way into our culture, and when we became familiar with it.”

Pawnee, one of a handful of Caddoan dialects once spoken by hundreds of thousands across the Great Plains, now has about a dozen fluent speakers. It’s hanging on, though, because of efforts by the Cultural Resource Division of the 3,600-member Pawnee Nation in north-central Oklahoma.

This September, as a result of a private fundraising drive, the Pawnee Nation will be restoring its language and culture classes in the town of Pawnee as part of an effort to reinforce the nation’s continued healthy survival with an awareness of Pawnee customs, traditions and cultural landscape.

Language classes have been led by two young Pawnee men formally trained in linguistics, who’ve developed a curriculum and made a clear impression on the community. Culture classes have included Pawnee songs, migration stories, dances, ceremonies, foods, beadwork and other elements.

“The language classes have had a steady turnout,” says Reed. “There was a fair bit of public outcry in January, actually, when we had to cut those classes because of an economic downturn in our region. We’re very excited to be able to bring back those classes, at least for part time this year.”

Enbridge is committed to improving quality of life in the communities near our operations, and our recent $5,000 donation to the Pawnee Nation will help fund these cultural preservation efforts.

“Our language program has moved ahead in fits and starts since the late 1970s. But our instructors grew up around the language, and they’ve applied their linguistics education to it,” says Reed.

“Ultimately they’ve brought a unique perspective, added a lot more interesting detail to it, and made the connection between our language, our history and our culture.”

(TOP PHOTO: The Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma has a long and rich history, spanning more than 700 years. The nation's Cultural Resource Division will be resuming language and culture classes in September 2019 to reinforce the nation's continued healthy survival with an awareness of Pawnee customs, traditions and landscape.)