ONEIDA, WI - A group of eighth-graders in Gail Danforth’s Oneida cultural and language
class at the Oneida Nation Elementary School recently spent the afternoon playing bingo.
But the students put a different spin on the popular game. Each game was played entirely using the Oneida language.
“Sometimes it’s a little hard because there’s so many different words that have different meanings, and some people
say words differently,” said 13-year-old Alicia Elm while taking a break between games.
“I like learning the language. I don’t want to see it die out.”
Neither do members of the Oneida community, who are working to preserve the language spoken hundreds of years ago
by their ancestors.
The Oneida language was nearly silenced during the relocation of Indian tribes across the country during the 1800s
and early 1900s.
Many children were taken from reservations and placed in government boarding schools, causing many to abandon their
“They were taught to be ashamed to speak the language,” said Carol Cornelius, area manager of the Oneida Cultural
Heritage Department. “The language was primarily oral. Many of our people were beaten if they spoke Oneida in public.
“For years, there was this shame associated with being able to speak it. If you spoke Oneida, then you were seen
as backward or stupid. It took us a long time to get over that shame,” she added.
Many native speakers in their in 80s and 90s grew up in households where their parents and grandparents spoke primarily
Oneida at home, Cornelius said.
The youngest of the about 15 Oneidas on the reservation who learned their native language before learning English
is 78, Cornelius said.
“People started seeing that the younger people weren’t keeping it, and the elders are getting older and older,”
“We want to be able to go into the One Stop and be able to greet each other in Oneida and understand what the other
one is saying.”
The Oneida Nation isn’t the only American Indian tribe fighting to preserve its native language. Groups such as
the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indians, Ottawa and the Cherokee also are working to ensure their native
dialects remain intact for future generations to speak.
Many believe that preserving the Oneida language means exposing the language to younger generations. In the early
1970s, programs to teach Oneida were introduced in schools nationwide.
It also was a time when Maria Hinton, one of a few native speakers living in Wisconsin, began her quest to preserve
In 1973 at the age of 63, Hinton participated in the Native Language Project, a state-run project that sought people
from five different American Indian tribes who could speak their native languages.
Hinton agreed to participate in the two-year pilot program through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She went
on to earn a bachelor’s degree in language from the UW-Green Bay.
“There were five of us in that program, but I’m the only one who’s still around,” she said. “A lot of good came
After teaching Oneida in Milwaukee schools for a few years, Hinton returned to Northeastern Wisconsin in 1976 and
began teaching the language at a school in Green Bay.
Hinton earned a lifetime teaching license from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that allows her to
teach the Oneida language without having to be re-certified.
Now 91, Hinton has taught the Oneida language at the tribal elementary school for nearly 20 years. Along with tribal
elders, her late sister Anna John and her late brother Amos Christjohn, she translated the English dictionary into
Oneida and published a book of more than 800 Oneida folk stories.
The stories, passed down verbally throughout several generations, were collected in the 1930s by Oneida writers
as a part of the Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression.
“I said that I was only going to give them 10 years of my life, but look at all that has come out of this,” Hinton
said. “There’s so many things that are going on, and everyone has their own ideas. But it’s all for the same reason:
to preserve the language.
“Some people want to separate the language from the culture, but you can’t separate the two,” she said. “If you
do that, then you lose a part of your culture.”
The group received help with their work from Clifford Abbott, an information-science professor at the UW-Green
Bay. Abbott has taught the language to UWGB students and to Oneidas off-campus for 25 years.
Difficult to learn
Those who teach the language say learning Oneida isn’t easy because some words have several different meanings,
and the language has more than 50 pronouns, Danforth said.
The Oneida language also has six vowel sounds. Unlike English, each letter in the Oneida language has only one
“There are so many sounds in the language that are very complex, especially for someone who’s just beginning to
learn,” she said.
All tribal child-care facilities, elementary and high schools teach both the Oneida language and English.
The courses reinforce each student’s ability to speak, read and write the Oneida language through different activities
such as bingo, she said.
“The language was primary oral, so there’s a lot of memorization,” Danforth said. “We spend a lot of time memorizing
Some older Oneidas who grew up hearing their grandparents speak the language but only learned English themselves
also have developed a passion to become fluent speakers.
Twice a week, a group of Oneida Nation officials meet at the Cultural Heritage Department.
Much of their lessons focus on learning basic phrases in Oneida such as “Hello” and “How is the weather?”
“It’s so amazing because you have Curt (Summers), one of the younger ones (28 years old) teaching those who are
in their 40s and 50s,” said Cornelius, who is in the class.
“Then you have the elders right there. They aren’t getting up in front of the room and teaching. They are allowing
the younger ones to teach but are right there if they are need guidance.”
As the officials are learning, they are going back into the community to teach others how to speak the language
as part of a 10-year plan.
Hinton said there also has been discussion of developing a certification program for teachers of the Oneida language.
“It builds the (Oneida) Nation up,” Cornelius said. “We want to make it so that people who are don’t speak are
envious of those can speak.”