Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 24, 2001 - Issue 30



Native Tongue Speaks to Oneidas' Heritage


Children, Adults Learn Ancestors' Language


by Michelle Breidenbach Syracuse Online


art "Time of Unity" by Scott Hill, Oneida

When Robert Doxtator speaks, Oneida Indian adults and children gather close and listen.

"Robert niyukyats," he tells them. "My name is Robert."

His sounds are rhythmic - a hard k or t followed by a soft vowel, a pause and another hard sound.

The adults and children repeat the words. They stumble, listen again and repeat. Then they laugh out loud and repeat.

Doxtator, 59, is among the youngest of the last generation of fluent Oneida speakers. In November, he brought his voice from Oneida, Ontario, Canada, to share with the native people of Oneida, N.Y.

"It tells me who I am," he said. "When I speak my language, it tells me I'm Oneida."

Doxtator spoke only Oneida until he turned 12 and the Canadian government tried to wash the ancient language out of his mouth.

He learned English in the white residential schools. But his rebellious father never stopped speaking Oneida at home.

Doxtator remembers coming home from school once to find a police officer with a knee wedged into his father's back. His father had spoken out against the government again.

"My dad was very strong in maintaining our culture and our language," he said. "We were fortunate."

Doxtator and his 12 brothers and two sisters are working to pass on the words he says define them as Oneida people.

It is important, he said, to instill that identity in younger generations.

Forty percent of the Oneidas who live along the Thames River in Ontario speak the Oneida language fluently. But most of those speakers are older than 50, he said.

Doxtator said he found few fluent speakers when he came to New York.

"We do need younger students to hear this," he said. "I only have five or six years left in the work field."

Doxtator is director of the New York Oneidas' 6-year-old language program. He got the job after he answered an advertisement on the New York Oneidas' Web site. He is an ordained minister and taught Oneida language for five years in public schools near London, Ontario.

Sheri Beglen, assistant language instructor, has learned enough from her elders to hold adult and children's classes several times each week at the Oneida Indian Nation territory on Route 46.

Oneida children enroll in the course at age 2.

The children learn to count, tell time and describe the weather. During a Wednesday class, the pupils wound a toy clock face and asked each other, "Toniyowista:e," or, "What time is it?"

They answered, for example, "Uska niyowista:e," or "One o'clock."

Adults move on to root words and spelling.

The language is easier to understand than to repeat or spell correctly, Beglen said.

The vowel sounds are almost always the same. But the alphabet has an upside-down v that sounds like "ough." Punctuation includes a question mark with no period and accent marks most fonts, including this newspaper's, cannot reproduce. A colon indicates a pause. An underlined letter means it is silent.

The program teaches adults not just to memorize the language, but to converse in it.

In the adult language course, students are not allowed to speak English. When they stumble, they get help from other students or the instructor. The most important phrase for new speakers is "Nahte'ka:tuhe," or "What does it mean?"

In a recent class, adult students greeted each other, "Shekoli. Skanako:ka" It's the same as "Hello. How are you?" in English. The literal translation is "Is there peace with you?"

It's that kind of meaning that is lost in English, said Birdy Burdick, program director for the Shako:wi Cultural Center.

"That's the way the whole language is," she said. "It's a whole different meaning."

Burdick, 60, considers herself a lucky student of Oneida language. When she hears the words, she said, she feels close to her mother and her aunts and uncles, fluent speakers who died without passing the language on.

"I have my own ideas about why I wasn't taught," Burdick said. "It was a protective thing."

Burdick relishes the opportunity to share the language with children who come to Shako:wi for storytelling or oil painting classes. Shako:wi means "He gives."

Burdick and her students greet each other in Oneida. She can tell them to "be quiet" in Oneida. The nation has a goal to build its own schools. Until then, the children learn the culture at home, she said.

"I try to encourage the children to go to school and learn what you have to on the outside," she said. "But keep your culture."

Oneida Language-Oral History Project




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