Talking Osage

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An interesting discussion by Ryan Red Corn about efforts to revive the Osage language:

No longer than a short while after the program got up and running did the tribe watch its last first language Osage speaker pass away, Lucille Roubedeaux.

As Uncle Mogre explained, “This is the last train out. If we can’t get it done this time around, then that’s it. There is no more after this. That’s it.” Everyone who ever heard those words fully understood the gravity of the situation, and decided that they did not want the language dying on their watch, including myself. […]

With the introduction of the language department, dedicated students and teachers started to create new speakers for the first time in only God knows how many years. It’s quite literally been close to 200 years since the last time the number of Osage speakers INCREASED. It’s difficult to take into account what this scrappy bunch of Osages has done until you put it into perspective. The Vatican even called to verify the miracle (Ok I made that last part up).

As you can imagine, opinions (and actions) about the importantance of language revitalization efforts vary:

Not long after bearing witness to this feat, I found myself at an Indigenous language conference in Stroud, Oklahoma. Story after story, I heard language department directors talk about battling their respective tribal governments over their efforts to preserve their respective community’s languages. You should have seen the looks on their faces as I explained in Osage country we had created a situation where it was political suicide to go AGAINST the language. I proudly boasted the triumphs of Uncle Mogre and his crew to a bunch of drop jawed faces. Of course some of the elders in the room didn’t believe me simply because they know Osages are always bragging and making stuff up that isn’t true to make themselves sound real keen. I’ll admit I might have embellished a little…..but not much. Honest. We just want to put our best foot forward. Be the best we can. It’s a pretty simple yet good philosophy to live by.

My tales of Uncle Mogre’s language exploits went far and wide, causing other programs to come check it out for themselves. They came to see how a program with no first language speakers, being led by a man with no formal training in education or linguistics, sufficiently funded by his tribal government had attained such a feat.


Fast forward to January, 2010. The Osage Nation Government passes a budget bill that cuts $120,000.00 with six line items receiving $1 in their budgets. Ouch… Meat Pie sale anyone?


Last weekend right off the heels of the budget cuts, about fifteen Osages met, on their own dollar, at the White Hair Museum between Fairfax and Hominy. They met for the language program’s monthly language immersion event.; usually meeting once a month on a Sunday at various places like museums or the zoo etc. I have been to a few of these events and always enjoy myself.

We were greeted by Stephanie Rapp in the entrance where we looked at ribbonwork, old pictures, videos and books. I was accompanied by my freshly anointed pregnant wife Electa. We sat around talking as much Osage as we could for the better part of the afternoon.

I am hoping this program remains well supported by its government. I want those waterboys at the end of the bench to have what I have enjoyed from this program over these last years. And most importantly I want the program to make possible my dream of creating the first, first language speaker our family has had since my grandpa spoke as a young boy. An audacious braggadocios improbable feat I know. But then again I’m Osage I can’t help but do it up right. WA.SHKA^ as they say, do the best you can. I’m about to be a dad. I got to start thinking about these types of things.

You see…regardless of whether or not those in the Osage Nation Congress who pushed for these cuts and then voted this budget to the Chief’s desk to be signed realize it or not, Osages are going to convene. On their own dollars if necessary, and simply do one thing. Talk. About what isn’t the point. The point is, they will talk.

Some useful background information is here.

[Hat tip to Carrie Shanafelt.]


  1. Nick Lamb said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    One thing you skipped is that it appears (unless Ryan has it wrong) that language is a legal necessity. That's very unfortunate, indeed actively divisive. Ordinarily I am much against a government spending tax money on encouraging people to learn language X, when it seems they'd be just as happy to learn language Y. That seems to me to be as wise as spending to ensure your citizens wear black shoes rather than brown. But in this case it seems the continued existence of the Osage language is somehow a dependency for the continued independent existence of their nation. I'm not sure what benefits exactly they accrue from the existence of the nation, but I'm sure they're considerable.

    [(myl) I don't think that it's true (that active use of a language is necessary for legal recognition of a tribe).]

  2. Ken Grabach said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    I am perceiving an ambivalence from academia toward an indigenous nation's efforts to recover and protect their language. If the group wants it, then why argue against it? The project, as I read it, has begun because members of the Osage nation have decided it is important.

    The government activity that Ryan describes is tribal government, of members of the Osage people. This is not Bureau of Indian Affairs, or state government involvement. The legal issues are over the tribal budget to pay for it.

    I apologize if I am misreading any of this commentary. Shouldn't the group's desire carry as much weight as (or more than) a legal requirement? Indeed, doesn't it say more for the prospects for success for the venture?

    I know of efforts for the Miami (Myaamia) of Oklahoma, with whom Miami University, my home instituttion, has projects for the preservation of their language. They have had projects to look at the names of the ancestral homelands, to compile the names for plants and the uses that were traditionally made of them, among others.
    And the Shawnee (Shawandasee) people of Ohio and Oklahoma have taken actions to maintain their language, which seems to have more than one dialect or spoken form.

    Both of these are internally directed, that is, the people, Myaamia and Shawandasee, are the ones doing the work and initiating the activities. This seems to be the case with the Osage project, as well. If federal money is available to help, I am proud to have some of my tax money go for this.

  3. Mark F said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    Ken — my read of the quotes in the posts was that some leaders in other tribes were against language preservation efforts, I guess because they are concerned that their members have good English proficiency for economic reasons. I think academics outside the communities tend to be strongly in favor of language preservation. But I may be totally misunderstanding.

  4. Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #3 – Society for Linguistic Anthropology said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    […] I checked reversing a 200 year trend is not easy, nor does it happen overnight." (Thanks to Mark Liberman at Language Log for bringing Voting Osage to my attention, and to Carrie Shanafelt for bringing it to […]

  5. Homer Fincannon said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    Ho-Wa ,Homer_ J and Brother Bill,we have a 2 Hour talk radio show titled `Osage Post-Host Homer_J on Blog Talk Radio, every Saturday at 5:30 P.M. Central Standard Time. We , being up in years, peter out before using up our 120 minutes, So since we always try to use two or three Osage words every week. We`d be willing to play a short Osage language Clip in there somewhere, haven`t. learn good-bye let. Did post over on Big Heart Times a view on the language budget cut.As far as hits, 1400 one day last week, about common. Later~Homer_J

  6. Rich abdoler said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    I am doing some research on the pleistocene spring bogs in the Pomme de Terre River Valley of western Missouri. I came across a reference that the Osage tribe called the river the "Big Bone River" in reference to the large bones that washed out of the springs during periods of heavy precipitation. Does anyone have any idea how big bone river would translate in Osage? Thanks for any help you can provide.

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