Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 27, 2003 - Issue 103


pictograph divider


Rescuing a language

by Mike McAndrew, Staff Writer - The (Syracuse) Post-Standard
credits: cover - Hanni Woodbury's "Onondaga-English, English-Onondaga Dictionary"

cover - Hanni Woodbury's "Onondaga-English, English-Onondaga Dictionary"So few Onondaga Nation members speak the Onondaga language fluently that their leaders won't disclose the number.

But Onondaga leaders admit they are desperately trying to save the language from extinction.

Percy Abrams, an Onondaga who is a graduate student in linguistics, began teaching language classes at the Indian territory four years ago. About 20 adults attend the free classes sponsored each week by the nation's government.

"The language can be saved," said Sid Hill, 52, the tadadaho, or spiritual leader at Onondaga, who began learning the language a few years ago. "We're still here, and we have a few people left who can talk, and we're determined. We will be using this language."

The Onondaga Nation's effort to maintain this part of its culture is getting a boost this year from Hanni Woodbury, a German-born linguist who lives in New Hampshire.

Woodbury, who 30 years ago began quizzing Onondaga elders about words and taping their speech, recently completed the first modern Onondaga-English dictionary.

Her 1,563-page dictionary, published this year by the University of Toronto Press, is being used by Abrams and his students as a new resource.

The dictionary enables Onondagas who grew up speaking English as their native tongue to look up the Onondaga equivalents for thousands of English words, from "abandon" to "zucchini."

Woodbury's "Onondaga-English English-Onondaga Dictionary" can be ordered on the Internet at Web sites like and It is not stocked in any Syracuse bookstores or at the Onondaga County Public Library.

The Onondaga Nation ordered 50 copies of the $175 dictionary to distribute to chiefs, clan mothers and others.

"All of the Iroquois languages are in trouble," Woodbury said. "Mohawk is the least at risk. It has the most speakers of it. All the others are endangered."

"It's really quite desperate," she said of the scarcity of Onondaga speakers.

At the request of Onondaga Nation leaders, Woodbury deleted from the forward to her dictionary information about the number of fluent Onondaga speakers living at the Onondaga territory south of Syracuse and at the Six Nations Reservation near Brantford, Ontario.

Eva Okun, 84, an Onondaga elder who helps Abrams in the Onondaga Nation's language program, said she knows of only three or four other Onondagas who are fluent in the language. There are more than 1,000 Onondagas living on or near the nation territory.

Onondaga was spoken by nearly all of the nation's residents until the 1920s or 1930s, Hill said.

The language is at risk because in the first half of the 20th century, many Onondagas, including his own mother, were ridiculed if they spoke Onondaga at school, Hill said.

"They told them it was a dirty language and we were savages," Hill said.

He said his parents spoke Onondaga at home only when they were discussing something they didn't want the children to understand or were giving their children a simple order, like go to bed.

"I think the reason they didn't talk to us in Onondaga was they didn't want us to be punished, ridiculed or degraded for speaking the language," he said.

There were other factors, too.

During and after World War II, many Onondagas left the territory to fight in the armed services or work in factories.

"Culturally, you had to be able to speak English to survive off the reservation," Abrams said.

So two generations of Onondagas did not teach the language to their children, said Hill. He is the first tadadaho in the history of the Haudenosaunee - a confederacy formed 500 to 1,000 years ago by five Indian nations including the Onondaga - who is not fluent in the native language.

Today, prejudices in the state's education system continue to deter the use of Onondaga, Hill said.

For three decades Onondaga youths have been studying Onondaga language and culture at the kindergarten through eighth grade Onondaga Nation School. But even if they become proficient Onondaga speakers, they cannot receive foreign language credit at LaFayette High School because there is no state-approved proficiency or regents test in Onondaga language, Hill said. To graduate from high school, Onondaga children must take Spanish or French classes for two years to meet New York's foreign language requirements.

"In general, when the kids go to high school, our language tends to get put on the back burner," Abrams said.

LaFayette High Principal Paula Cowling said the LaFayette school district is working with Onondaga Nation officials to develop an Onondaga language test. But it could be years before a test wins state Department of Education approval, she said.

"We'd love the kids to have that option," Cowling said.

It won't be easy to revive Onondaga as a language.

Onondaga is one of the hardest languages to learn, according to Woodbury.

"It's just insane," she said of the difficulty. "I know a lot of linguists, American Indian linguists, and whenever one hears you're working on Onondaga, they say, 'Oh, God.' It's famous for being incredibly complicated and full of subtleties."

"I can't tell you how hard that language is to acquire. It just makes your head spin," she said.

Few English words are derivatives of Onondaga words.

The Onondaga language existed for centuries only as an oral language, without its own alphabet. It's written in the dictionary using just 19 letters, but one of the letters looks like a question mark.

Through the extensive use of both prefixes and suffixes, basic Onondaga verbs change into dozens of other words.

Many single Onondaga words translate into an entire English sentence.

Abrams noted that you can say "we" four different ways in Onondaga to differentiate between "you and I," "I and another," "you, others and I," and "myself and others."

Tony Gonyea, a faithkeeper at the Onondaga Nation, has been attending Abrams' language classes for several years, and he can now understand spoken Onondaga, but he struggles to speak it.

Onondagas have to know the language to participate in the nation's Longhouse ceremonies - which is the crux of the Onondaga culture, Gonyea said.

"We have to give thanks for everything we have. And you can't do the ceremonies in English," he said.

Still, Abrams and others say they are optimistic.

The Onondagas taking the classes "are doing incredibly well. They are really committed," Woodbury said.

"My sense of it is that if they keep doing what Percy is doing, there will be speakers there. Percy speaks to his children. That's absolutely key. If you don't have it around you at home, eventually the language will die."

Abrams, who did not learn Onondaga as a child on the nation, began working in 1995 toward a doctoral degree in linguistics at the University of Buffalo. He began teaching Onondaga language classes at the territory four years later.

Each week, there are four language classes for beginners and one intermediate-level class, Abrams said.

In the summer, the nation hosts a week-long Onondaga language immersion camp where participants camp out in a field and try to speak only Onondaga.

Abrams said he tries to teach his students the grammatical structure, or rules, of the language.

"You can memorize lists of Onondaga words, but if you don't know how to use them you're not going to be able to speak," he said.

Two fluent Onondaga elders, Okun and Phoebe Hill, regularly attend the language classes to provide guidance.

Woodbury said she could not have written her dictionary without the help of the Onondaga elders.

She said she first visited Onondaga in the early 1970s when she was a graduate student at Yale University. She had learned a little about the Oneida language from Richard Chrisjohn, the late Oneida Indian Nation of New York representative. At his urging, she wrote a letter to Harry Webster, an Oneida who lived at the Onondaga territory, and asked for Webster's help in studying Onondaga. Webster didn't respond to her letter, so Woodbury just drove from her home in Westchester County to Onondaga, asked for directions to Webster's house, and knocked on his door.

"I was slightly scared," Woodbury said. "There was Harry and his wife, Lottie. They were very quiet and dignified. I was received very well."

"I set up my little tape recorder. I said how do you say, 'one, two, three.' That kind of thing. I still have the tape. It was amazing," she said.

For years, she continued visiting Onondaga, taping Webster and others speaking Onondaga.

Abrams said that years ago, some Onondaga Nation leaders did not favor letting outsiders learn their language. They were upset because archeologists had put their ancestors' remains on display in museums, anthropologists had published accounts of their sacred ceremonies and educators had punished Onondaga children for speaking their native tongue.

They would not have supported publication of an Onondaga dictionary decades ago, Abrams said.

"A lot of people thought we've had so much taken from our culture that we shouldn't share our language with people who are not of our culture," Abrams said.

"The timing has changed. At this point, the speakers realize we need this dictionary. Our people really need it," Abrams said.

Onondaga Nation, NY Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!