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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 5, 2002 - Issue 71


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Naa-shoo . . . Naaschu . . . Oh, Forget It

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald
CornLearning a language can be difficult and embarrassing, especially if you're foolish enough to try out new words in front of an audience - an audience that speaks the language. That is what happened to this naive columnist last week.

In my home community of White Shield, N.D., in the fall when berries and crops ripen, it is customary for the Sahnish people to celebrate and give thanks for all that Mother Earth has provided to us this growing season. Most important to the Sahnish is corn. As our people traveled north from the southern part of the continent, we brought the corn with us. Mother Corn, as we call her, sustained us not only with food but also with teachings by which we try to live.

Someone once asked me, “Who is Mother Corn?” She is similar to the Virgin Mary, I told them.

So when I was asked to be the announcer at a daylong Mother Corn celebration at White Shield school, I was pleased.

Four Pawnee men from Oklahoma were invited. They are our cousins. We were once one tribe. The group included the chief of the Pawnee, a historian, a language teacher and a leader of the repatriation efforts for their tribe.

They sat in the front of the community room beside me.

I can speak and understand some Sahnish, but I am not fluent. I also know words and can understand some Lakota and Dakota Sioux and Hidatsa. So, I guess you could call me a “smidgen” speaker.

I was pleased with myself when I saw the agenda because there were words that I knew and could use in my introductions. But rather than sticking with those words I knew, I gatherered more and more words from my relatives in the crowd.

My sister-in-law is a language teacher at White Shield school, and she speaks fluently. She also uses her Indian name. Yes, most of us have two names - one that we use in non-Native society and an Indian name that usually is given to us as part of the traditions. My sister-in-law (you'll notice I haven't used her name. I don't want to risk ANY further embarrassment to her) has a particularly difficult name to pronounce, but after saying it over and over, I thought I had it down - no problem. I got through the first few Sahnish words on the agenda without a smirk from the audience.

But when I introduced her, the audience broke into tumultuous laughter, and the Pawnee men nearly rolled on the floor, they were laughing so hard. My mother told me afterward that I called my sister-in-law Coyote Woman instead of her real Indian name. After I handed the microphone to her and settled into my seat, the chief of the Pawnee tapped me on the shoulder. The restrained smile on his face told me I was in trouble. “Do you know what you just said in Pawnee?” he asked. (Our languages, Pawnee and Sahnish, are somewhat the same but not identical.) I thought the worst, and I was right: I had said something you wouldn't repeat in mixed company.

The rest of the program was strictly in English for me. That mispronounced word topped my “lost keys” incident, my sister said. Several years ago during a powwow, the Sahnish Culture Society made a presentation. When it was over, I couldn't find my car keys. I thought I probably set them down somewhere because I didn't a have a pocket or purse. The announcer announced my lost keys routinely throughout the evening; people looked on every shelf and under every chair. I had to call a locksmith from several miles away to open my car door. I had an extra key in my purse in the locked car.

My aunt and I talked for a bit after the powwow, then went to bed. As I began to undress, my car keys dropped out of my bra. I am not sure how the rest of the community found out, but my brothers and cousins tease me relentlessly about those keys.

But that story will lose ground to my new pronunciation fiasco.

There is a lesson to be learned by my slight (ahem) misstep in the language. My sister-in-law on my ex-husband's side told me that she made such a faux pas, too, and never tried to speak Hidatsa again. In addition, one of my nephews seems to have a difficult time with the inflections and the sounds of the words, which frustrated his teacher. So he also is nervous about speaking.

I was told - and I hold the advice dear, especially right now - that in learning a new language, you will bring your own accent and hear the words from the perspective of your original language. Mispronouncing a word or two is par for the course and shouldn't be a signal to give up trying.

The language of our people is important because it is who we are and how we think. We need to learn and understand our language so we have a deeper understanding of our culture - in spite of the mispronunciations.

Yellow Bird writes columns. Reach her at 780-1228, (800) 477-6572 ext. 228 or

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