an office cluttered with American Indian texts and memorabilia,
Mark Awakuni-Swetland explains the marriage of his adopted language
and culture through a message in his hand.
demonstrate, he forms an L-shape with his elbow, and his fingers
straighten toward the ceiling.
one side of the hand, he says, you have the palm. On the other,
there's the knuckled top.
two sides are different, he says, but nonetheless connected.
can you separate the two?" he said. "They're tied together
in a way you cannot separate."
the language he teaches, Awakuni-Swetland, lecturer of anthropology
and Native American studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
is bound to his students and they to the culture, community and
future of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.
Omaha classes are meant to revive the culture of the tribe through
language, an oral tradition slowly becoming silent as its native
speakers pass away.
belief for many is that the loss of language is a loss of culture
-- a unique identity," he said.
teaching a language that is disappearing among its speakers is difficult.
These days, the first language American Indian children learn on
the Omaha reservation is English.
do you revive a language," he said, "when even the parents
don't speak it?"
the Omaha people, Awakuni-Swetland and his crew of students are
a bit of an anomaly.
is the white man in the tribe -- once a white boy merely interested
in American Indian things, now a white professor teaching a Native
students -- some American Indian, some white -- are outsiders, their
presence sometimes considered an intrusion on tradition.
Omaha people can trace their ancestry in Nebraska back to the 1700s,
the longest of any tribe in Nebraska.
are proud of their traditions, and it takes time for some to accept
that white, college-aged students are learning and sometimes teaching
their language, said Jessica Waite, a junior anthropology major.
everything, it's always nerve-racking the first time you go,"
she said, speaking of the class's visits to the Indian Culture Center
pretty much the only white person there."
whose ancestors were part of the Ogallala and Sioux tribes, said
she was looking for a connection to the American Indian community
when she signed up for the Omaha classes.
knew she and the other students were not just fulfilling a language
requirement, but keeping the language alive for the tribe.
classes are consumptive," Awakuni-Swetland said. "You
go in and consume a lecture or notes, regurgitating something as
this case, your job is to learn the language while producing materials
that will last beyond you."
first cohort of students to complete the program created an Omaha-English
language cookbook. Waite's class, set to finish its four-semester
cycle of classes this spring, will publish a how-to manual on constructing
you know English, you can learn how to read and speak Omaha just
from this book," Awakuni-Swetland said.
pinnacle of the classes' work, Waite said, came in April when the
group organized a traditional "hand game" for the Indian
the students spoke in Omaha, it was one of the first times Waite
said she felt accepted.
they heard us speaking their language, it really felt like they
were coming around to accepting us and realizing how important this
course was at UNL," she said.
students realize, she said, they are among the few carriers of the
we first started, Mark told us there were probably about 40 fluent
speakers left," she said. "It kind of feels good that
we're working to keep this language alive."
to the Omaha tradition, Awakuni-Swetland is awash with relatives.
has no Native American ancestors, save those who came through his
adoption. In high school in the 1970s, he took Omaha classes from
a woman who later would become his adopted grandmother.
that, her relatives became his -- including an 87-year-old brother
and a daughter older than he.
though they're all technically fictive, they are relationships that
came through my adoption," he said. "And through that,
I have relationships with all of their relatives."
Omaha people don't use blood to distinguish relationships, he said.
The relationship determines the term -- whether a close friend or
mentor becomes a sister or uncle or brother.
Canby, a 73-year-old Native speaker who assists in the classroom,
calls Awakuni-Swetland her nephew; he calls her his aunt.
he calls me Auntie, it makes me feel like he's one of my children,"
students in the class, she said, have become like her Omaha children,
students speak, she said, as if they'd known the language before.
tribal council members were amazed, Awakuni-Swetland said, at the
students' April celebration.
campus, the students are the ambassadors of the Omaha people.
something that makes the Omaha seem like real people, not just artifacts
in a museum," he said.
now, though, Waite is simply grateful for the family the class has
classes are purposefully small, with about 15 students each cycle.
Because the class moves in a two-year cycle, the students take class
together for four semesters. The next group of students will begin
the program in fall 2004.
three semesters, the group is tightly knit, Waite said. They barbecue
at Awakuni-Swetland's home; they go to their elders, the speakers
in their classes, for advice.
has found the language cannot be separated from the Omaha culture
and the relationships it has provided.
people may not be my blood relatives," she said, "but
they are my family."