How One Native Educator Is Maintaining A Tribal Language Alive


On the Omaha Native American reservation in northeastern Nebraska, one educator is working arduous to maintain the tribal language alive by serving to youngsters to study it at school.

Vida Woodhull Stabler is the director of the Omaha (or “Umonhon” within the tribe’s language) tradition middle at Umonhon Nation Public Colleges in Macy, Nebraska. She has been working for the previous 18 years to painstakingly collect, report and move on the cultural data of tribal elders for future generations. Alongside different elders in the neighborhood, she has helped to developed a curriculum and lesson plans for Umonhon language courses, in addition to different methods to infuse college students’ day-to-day faculty expertise with culturally related learnings, resembling tribal songs and dance.

However she and her colleagues face an uphill battle: Solely a few dozen Umonhon tribe members are believed to talk the language fluently right now, Stabler advised HuffPost.

“It’s important for kids” to study the Umonhon language, Stabler advised HuffPost. “I actually imagine this: There may be an innate want, need and love of our tradition within them. They’ll turn into stronger as human beings after they know who they’re, and might stand agency and robust towards all of the challenges that life will throw at them.”

Kyleigh Merrick, 15, who has attended Umonhon Nation faculties since kindergarten, has chosen Umonhon language as an elective class.

“I hope to turn into one of many fluent audio system,” Merrick advised HuffPost. “To me it’s actually vital for everybody to study the language and to show our children, as a result of there aren’t that many fluent audio system. If I can turn into a fluent speaker, I can educate everybody else and assist the language not die.”


In lots of Native communities throughout the U.S., tribal languages are endangered and are liable to declining and even going extinct, as elder tribe members, who usually are those who converse Native languages most fluently, die. 

For Merrick, studying the Umonhon language as a teen right now is vital but in addition a problem. She goes to language class every single day, the place she learns every part from verbs to animals to numbers ― however outdoors of sophistication, alternatives to talk it are scarce. Her great-grandmother makes use of it at house, however amongst her friends, solely a handful will generally greet one another in Umonhon, and that’s “simply to joke round.” At college, she says solely “a couple of” college students are taking Umonhon language class and appear deeply thinking about tribal language and tradition. 

“It’s just some youngsters, not that many ― I believe all of it begins at house,” Merrick mentioned. “The youngsters who select motion pictures over a ceremony or dance, it has to do with their mother and father and what they educate their youngsters ― in the event that they pushed them to go to a ceremony or dances or social gatherings.”

In Stabler’s expertise, mother and father and the bigger Umonhon tribal neighborhood are invested in passing on cultural data, and accomplish that in myriad methods to their youngsters ― however not all the time by means of language instruction. In her view, the most important barrier is just youngsters’ assimilation into mainstream tradition.

“There’s little question that our tribe, in addition to many, are in a state of urgency. In our period, lots of our distant locations can have entry to trendy lure that take away our children from cultural exercise,” Stabler advised HuffPost. “As a substitute of sitting and collaborating in a dance, they’d slightly go to a film. That’s youth, and that’s how assimilation occurs.”

They’ll turn into stronger as human beings after they know who they’re.
Vida Woodhull Stabler

One other vital power that has labored towards the passing of Native tribal languages over generations is the historical past of American Indian boarding faculties ― which have left a painful legacy in Native communities. The federal authorities started sending Native college students to boarding faculties within the mid-1800s, and up by means of the 1960s college students there weren’t allowed to precise tribal cultures and had been taught solely English, in an effort to forcefully assimilate them.

“The boarding faculty expertise beat the language out of them,” Mark Awakuni-Swetland, a former affiliate professor of anthropology on the College of Nebraska-Lincoln advised the Omaha World-Herald in 2015, earlier than his demise. Awakuni-Swetland, who co-authored an Umonhon language dictionary, advised the outlet that almost all boarding faculties pressured Native college students to talk English, and the children can be punished in the event that they didn’t ― even crushed.

On the Umonhon reservation in Nebraska, the dangerous legacy of boarding faculties remains to be felt right now.

“We’ve needed to overcome a adverse historical past with boarding faculties to turn into extra purposeful in instructing cultural values and norms of our neighborhood,” Stabler, who attended boarding faculty, advised HuffPost. “Our neighborhood values our tradition ― it was devalued in boarding faculty, however our neighborhood values it.”


In Native communities nationwide, language revitalization efforts fluctuate: In upstate New York, as an example, the Mohawk tribe provides its members deep language immersion applications, and in California, Native American Head Begin preschools are instructing the youngest neighborhood members tribal languages from day one.

For Stabler in Nebraska, given the Umonhon tribe and college’s restricted funding, passing on the language is a day by day effort of benefiting from the little she has.

“Our language doesn’t have entry to the identical varieties of supplies that Spanish or German do ― you’ll be able to stroll into any library and bookstore and discover oodles of Spanish books to purchase,” Stabler mentioned. “Our neighborhood has needed to develop supplies, tangible stuff ― on our personal. The primary problem is making certain individuals wish to study and educate ― the second is ensuring they’ve supplies to study from.”

If I can turn into a fluent speaker, I can educate everybody else and assist the language not die.
Kyleigh Merrick

Stabler gives the language and tradition supplies she and others have developed over time to the bigger Umonhon tribal neighborhood, together with Native neighborhood members in Lincoln and Omaha, in addition to Nebraska Indian Group School, which additionally teaches Umonhon language and tribal historical past.

At Umonhon Nation public faculties, Stabler makes some extent of incorporating tribal tradition into college students’ on a regular basis faculty expertise, which might imply one thing like hanging up a calendar with months in English and Umonhon, or working with the administration to infuse Umonhon tradition into different courses. In biology class, as an example, youngsters may harvest corn to make conventional tribal meals, or in “household sciences” class, they could study to do ribbon work or make moccasins.

One of many greatest challenges she faces is that whereas nearly the entire college students are Native, most academics on the faculty usually are not. That’s why Stabler makes some extent of bringing in tribal elders and others with experience in cultural practices, like tune and dance or poetry, to instruct youngsters. However each Stabler and Merrick insisted that even non-Native academics, lots of whom have been on the faculty for years and are licensed to show the Umonhon language, assist to move on tribal learnings.

For Stabler, the work of creating certain Umonhon tradition lives on into the following generations by no means stops ― in actual fact, it solely grows extra pressing with time, as a few of the elders with the deepest cultural data in the neighborhood have died in the previous few years. However in her thoughts, nothing is extra vital. 

“If [students] are rooted to our land, to our water and our earth, our air ― every part that’s round us ― they’ll be rooted as human beings,” Stabler mentioned.


CORRECTION: A earlier model of this story misstated the title of a faculty to which Stabler gives course supplies. It’s referred to as Nebraska Indian Group School, not Omaha Group School.

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