few Onondaga Nation members speak the Onondaga language fluently
that their leaders won't disclose the number.
Onondaga leaders admit they are desperately trying to save the language
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.
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."
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.
who 30 years ago began quizzing Onondaga elders about words and
taping their speech, recently completed the first modern Onondaga-English
1,563-page dictionary, published this year by the University of
Toronto Press, is being used by Abrams and his students as a new
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."
"Onondaga-English English-Onondaga Dictionary" can be
ordered on the Internet at Web sites like amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
It is not stocked in any Syracuse bookstores or at the Onondaga
County Public Library.
Onondaga Nation ordered 50 copies of the $175 dictionary to distribute
to chiefs, clan mothers and others.
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
really quite desperate," she said of the scarcity of Onondaga
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.
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.
was spoken by nearly all of the nation's residents until the 1920s
or 1930s, Hill said.
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.
told them it was a dirty language and we were savages," Hill
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.
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,"
were other factors, too.
and after World War II, many Onondagas left the territory to fight
in the armed services or work in factories.
you had to be able to speak English to survive off the reservation,"
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.
prejudices in the state's education system continue to deter the
use of Onondaga, Hill said.
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.
general, when the kids go to high school, our language tends to
get put on the back burner," Abrams said.
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.
love the kids to have that option," Cowling said.
won't be easy to revive Onondaga as a language.
is one of the hardest languages to learn, according to Woodbury.
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."
can't tell you how hard that language is to acquire. It just makes
your head spin," she said.
English words are derivatives of Onondaga words.
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.
the extensive use of both prefixes and suffixes, basic Onondaga
verbs change into dozens of other words.
single Onondaga words translate into an entire English sentence.
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."
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.
have to know the language to participate in the nation's Longhouse
ceremonies - which is the crux of the Onondaga culture, Gonyea said.
have to give thanks for everything we have. And you can't do the
ceremonies in English," he said.
Abrams and others say they are optimistic.
Onondagas taking the classes "are doing incredibly well. They
are really committed," Woodbury said.
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
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.
week, there are four language classes for beginners and one intermediate-level
class, Abrams said.
the summer, the nation hosts a week-long Onondaga language immersion
camp where participants camp out in a field and try to speak only
said he tries to teach his students the grammatical structure, or
rules, of the language.
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.
fluent Onondaga elders, Okun and Phoebe Hill, regularly attend the
language classes to provide guidance.
said she could not have written her dictionary without the help
of the Onondaga elders.
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.
was slightly scared," Woodbury said. "There was Harry
and his wife, Lottie. They were very quiet and dignified. I was
received very well."
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,"
years, she continued visiting Onondaga, taping Webster and others
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
would not have supported publication of an Onondaga dictionary decades
ago, Abrams said.
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,"
timing has changed. At this point, the speakers realize we need
this dictionary. Our people really need it," Abrams said.