This year’s fair had 45 Native languages represented by 63 tribal language programs, schools or family groups. And of the 921 students who competed, more than 500 actually attended the fair at the Sam Noble Museum.
NORMAN, Okla. – The 11th edition of the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair featured 921 students performing or submitting 446 entries on April 1-2 at the Sam Noble Museum. That’s nearly 800 more students participating this year than in 2003 when 126 students competed in the first language fair.
Dr. Mary Linn, Sam Noble Museum Native American languages curator, said she’s seen the event grow since she, Cheyenne & Arapaho citizen Quinton Roman Nose and Comanche citizen Geneva Navarro decided to hold the fair in 2003.
“We do have growth. Some years, when there’s cutbacks in public school education there’s also cutbacks for travel and field trips. But this year we have, yes, there is a lot of kids participating, a lot of programs,” Linn, a non-Native said.
Linn said she credits the growth of student participation to a resurgence of Oklahoma’s Native languages.
“Whereas in the media, it focuses on the loss of elder first language speakers, and that certainly is happening in Oklahoma and that certainly is a tragedy, but they’re generally not recording is that there are all of these younger kids that are learning their languages,” she said. “And there is a lot of really good second-language learners who speak very fluently on a conversational basis that are in their 20s, 30s that are really learning the language, and they are helping with teaching the children. So I think the languages are actually getting stronger in people wanting to use the language and working to use the language.”
Christine Armer, Sam Noble Museum Native American youth language coordinator and Cherokee language instructor at the University of Oklahoma, said as a language fair judge for the first eight years and a coordinator the past three years, she’s also witnessed more students and tribal program participation.
“It seems like it’s growing every year,” she said. “I think that a lot of our tribes have realized that their language is dying. I think it started back when bilingual programs started. I think people started realizing how the language was going away…And I think that’s the reason that they decided the language should go on.”
Armer said it’s a wonderful thing, seeing more children each year at language fair because it means more children are interested in saving Native languages.
“I feel, from my heart, I feel that’s the greatest thing because my grandfather told me one time ‘if you lose your language, you lose who you are,’” she said. “So it makes me feel good that all these parents and teachers are taking their time and being patient, teaching this language, because if this younger generation do not take over our part, we won’t have any languages no more and how can we prove that we are really Native American unless somebody takes over and teaches these children to learn their language so they can speak later on as they grow up.”
Linn said honoring Native language teachers and students were two big reasons why she, Roman Nose and Navarro started the language fair.
“Well, I was hired as the curator for Native American languages and I really wanted to do a couple of things. One of them was to show that Native languages are still living and they’re not just put into a museum and forgotten about,” she said. “So I really wanted to show that children were acquiring the languages, they were learning the languages, and that they were a vital part of everyday life in the communities. I also wanted to honor the teachers who I had been working with for many years through teacher-training programs, and I knew they were working without very much curriculum, without very much support, sometimes no monetary support at all, paying for all their own materials. So I really wanted to honor them for trying to teach the languages under theses circumstances. And then also the students to really give them support and boost and try to make them feel that there were other kids out there, maybe in other tribes, but that there were other kids out there that were doing the same things that they were doing.”
Apparently, those messages have gotten out. This year’s fair had 45 Native languages represented by 63 tribal language programs, schools or family groups. And of the 921 students who competed, more than 500 actually attended the fair at the Sam Noble Museum.
Linn said many students submit entries in competitions such as book or poster categories that don’t require their attendance in Norman. Other categories that don’t require attendance include essay, power point, comic books, written poetry and film and video screening. They are considered the non-performance categories and awarded first through third place prizes as well as an honorable mention prize. And all students who submit entries into those categories but do not attend receive language fair T-shirts.
The performance categories include individual spoken language, group spoken language, group song, individual song and poetry performed. All the categories are broken down by age groups and then again by small and large groups. Trophies were awarded for the performance categories for first, second and third place, and all students received participation medals.
Linn said she doesn’t think there is a group or school that dominates the competition annually, but there are programs that work towards the competition each year. One of those groups is the Cherokee Nation Immersion School, a pre-K through eighth grade charter school where teachers and students speak only Cherokee.
Denise Chaudoin, a kindergarten teacher at the school, said her classes have competed four years and they have always brought home trophies.
“Every group that I’ve had we’ve either come in first or second, and I think most of the others have done first, second or third,” she said. “I see other people winning, too, but I don’t believe any of our kids have ever come home without some kind of award.”
This year was no different as Chaudoin’s kindergarten class won the Pre-K through Second Grade Large Group category by singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
“I think it’s very good for the children. They get a chance to display their language and it gives them confidence to get up in front of a group. A lot of our kids are really shy. I think it’s just good for them,” Chaudoin said. “They have sung it with me and without me. They could have sung it today without me. I just kind of mouth the words and keep the beat, but they know the song. They can sing it by themselves.”
She said likes her students to participate in the language fair because it helps preserve the Cherokee language, they get to see other parts of the state and they see other children learning other Native languages.
“It just broadens their scope, I think, all around,” she said.
Denise Chaudoin's Cherokee Immersion School kindergarten class won the Pre-K through Second Grade Large Group category by singing “I’ll Fly Away.”