Maria Hinton was born nearly 100 years ago, every Oneida family
spoke the language of their ancestors. Now a great-great-grandmother,
Hinton may be one of a few fluent Oneida speakers left in Wisconsin,
but she is determined not to be the last.
recently put the finishing touches on an exhaustive recording of
the Oneida dictionary. Taking five years of almost daily work, she
recorded 12,000 audio files, including tens of thousands of Oneida
words, and told stories she first heard in her mother tongue.
had a lot to celebrate in her centennial year. At 99, she was named
one of the first recipients of the Prism Award from the Smithsonians
National Museum of the American Indian for her quest to save the
am not completely retired, said Hinton, of Oneida, Wis. We
need to keep doing this so the young people can learn things and
then they can pass them on.
her, a young woman named LeAnne Thompson listens on the phone to
the questions. She repeats them in English or Oneida for Hinton,
who is hard of hearing, before Hinton takes the phone back and answers
in English. Thompson has been Hintons pupil for 22 years,
starting when she was 8.
the time she reached her 20s, Thompson realized that what she had
amassed was knowledge of words, not conversational language. She
began visiting Hinton at her home, taking her to lunch and helping
her with errands. Together they speak Oneida, the young woman who
is now 30 keying on every inflection and turn of phrase her elder
Hinton, Thompson is a model of the way the Oneida must now work
to recover their languages. She has four children and is a
very active mom, the elder says. She comes here to learn.
was among a generation that grew up speaking and hearing Oneida
as the dominant language on the reservation near Green Bay, Wis.
She was 10 in 1920 when she went to school and learned English.
But she held onto her first language, standing up to matrons in
order to keep her knowledge of Oneida alive.
was the predominant language when she was born, and for quite a
few years after she became an adult, said Jerry Hill, who
is Oneida and president of the Indigenous Language Institute in
Santa Fe, N.M. Over time people got assimilated, got jobs
outside, got married, and it became less necessary.
Hinton remembered. Her memory is a gift that was recognized in a
name, Yaké-yahle, given to her at a gathering in Canada when
she was 46. It means She Remembers.
year later she left Wisconsin on a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles
to be with her only sons family. Her grandson, Ernie Stevens
Jr., the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, reflected
on her move to California when he accepted the Prism Award on her
behalf in October at the museum in Washington, D.C. She cleaned
houses and waited tables to help support the family, he recalled.
always has had a track record of being noble and proud, Stevens
said. I dont know how you get all that, and she dont
take any crap from nobody.
1971, she returned to Wisconsin with her family. Soon she and her
brother, Amos Christjohn, began working with the Oneida Nation to
teach the language to a generation of children who knew only English.
Two years later, at the age of 63, Hinton enrolled in the University
of Wisconsin to earn her bachelors degree, even learning to
drive so she could get to her classes.
graduated cum laude in 1979 to become a founding teacher along with
Christjohn at the Oneida Nation Turtle School. They worked with
other elder speakers over 35 years to compile a dictionary with
the help of a Yale-trained linguist, Cliff Abbott.
were trying to train a core of Oneidas who had enough ability in
the language to teach it to kindergarten and first and second grades,
on a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project to document
the language, in which many grandparents and great-grandparents
of Oneida families participated, the dictionary grew to 34,000 words.
When it was published in 1996 there were between 25 and 30 Oneida
speakers living, though many would pass away in the next few years,
including Christjohn. Hinton continued working.
was one of the people who noticed that when people came to her and
tried out their Oneida, their pronunciation was often terrible,
Abbott said. I pointed out to her that the only way to prevent
that was if they had a model, and we started the project of her
recording the entire dictionary.
dictionary in Hintons voice can be heard on the University
of Wisconsin-Green Bay website at www.uwgb.edu/oneida/index.html.
The database is searchable with English words.
said Hintons gift is being a teacher to generations of Oneida
woman has an infinite acceptance of people trying to acquire the
language, Hill said. She is a quiet woman but very expressive.
She has a lovely motherly way of generating trust and gaining acceptance.
She brings the trust level down to where you are.
said what Oneida students long for today is to be able to hear two
Oneida speakers flow in conversation together. But with less than
a handful of first-language speakers left at the Oneida Nation in
Wisconsin there are fewer opportunities. Thompson said she persists
in her own efforts because the Oneida language makes my heart
who personally received her Prism Award from the National Museum
of the American Indian at the National Indian Education Association
in Milwaukee last fall, is still talking about the high school students
who spoke Oneida, and sang and danced in her honor.
remembers thinking, Everything around us is Oneida.