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  • Writer's pictureAlaina Tahlate

Origins

In order to talk about where we are going and who we are becoming, we must first remember where and whom we come from. The Caddo language revitalization effort is the successor of generations of community-led Haseenay (Caddo) language preservation. The ongoing work builds upon the farsighted foundation our predecessors laid. The Caddo language efforts today would not go far without the lifelong dedication of the Haseenay community members and academic allies that came before us. In the spirit of paying respect where it is due, the Caddo language program recognizes the contributions of our past culture keepers and living treasures below. In the early 1970s, Melford Williams and Jesse Ahdunko taught Caddo language classes at the community house at the Caddo tribal headquarters of Binger, OK. In the mid-1980s, Leon Carter and Wilson Kionute taught Caddo language classes in Ft. Cobb, OK. These two earliest community Caddo language classes, along with the linguistic research Dr. Wallace Chafe and Daniel da Cruz did with Haseenay speaker Sadie Bedoka Weller in the 50s and 60s produced foundational language documentation the Haseenay language effort still uses today. In the 1990s, several Haseenay community members including Charlene Brown Wright*, Donnie Frank*, Marilyn Williams Threlkeld*, Stacey Halfmoon*, George Beatty*, Mary Cecile Elkins Carter, Vermona Shemamy Collins, Madeline Wolf Hamilton, Alberta James Tewinin Beatty, Marjorie Brown Botone, Randlett Edmonds, Buntin Williams, and Phil Newkumet teamed up with the linguists and anthropologists Robert Brian Levy*, Dr. Lynette Melnar*, Pete Gregory*, Dayna Bowker Lee*, Dr. Alice Anderton and Dr. Wallace Chafe. Their efforts led to the establishment of the Kiwat Hasinay Foundation, which has since fallen inactive as only 9 of the 19 board members and advisors remain earthside. The Kiwat Hasinay Foundation created the first Caddo language book in the Caddo tribe’s history and held Caddo language classes in Gracemont, OK in the early 90s under the direction of Charlene Wright, Vermona Collins, Brian Levy, and Alice Anderton, PhD. * Living members

Inspiring Others

When the community language workers of the 1950s - 1990s endeavored to preserve the birthright of the next generation of Caddos, they likely understood they would not live to see the fruits of their labor. Today’s Haseenay learners aim to complete the vision of the language warriors that courageously fought to keep the Haseenay way of life alive for their descendants through their tireless Caddo language activism. By following the example of our ancestors, our small but proud nation may be able to reverse our community's steady language loss. At the turn of the 21st century, several of the remaining elderly speakers of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma passed away, which raised concern among Caddo community members that Haseenay language would go to sleep. The status of the Caddo language became critically endangered, with 25 Haseenay speakers left in 1997. Interest in Haseenay language revitalization rekindled, and a new generation of language workers stepped up. In 2012 the Metro Caddo Culture Club hosted a Caddo language class at the Jacobson House in Norman, OK which was taught by Donna Edmonds Williams, the daughter of the then-recently departed Haseenay speaker, Randlett “Frosty” Edmonds. Derek Edmonds, the grandson of Randlett Edmonds, also taught some Caddo language classes at that time. The classes continued for a few more years. A new wave of community mobilization around Haseenay language had begun.

Language Efforts Today

Charlene Wright is a lifelong Caddo cultural advocate, leader, and teacher. She is also a Haseenay heritage speaker and elder. She serves as the chair of the board of the Kiwat Hasinay Foundation, which is now inactive. Her language work continues through her efforts at the Caddo Culture Club. She still teaches Haseenay to any Caddo people who wish to learn at the bi-monthly Caddo Culture Club meetings in the cultural building at the Caddo tribal headquarters in Binger, OK. Her language efforts with the Caddo Culture Club are not affiliated with the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma's tribal government and do not receive tribal government funding. Charlene Wright is widely considered to be a living treasure of our Caddo people for her knowledge of Caddo culture and traditions. Within the Caddo community, Charlene Wright is deeply respected for her decades-long cultural preservation work and selfless leadership. Alaina Tahlate is a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. In April 2015, Tahlate began to host online and in-person Haseenay language classes as she studied linguistics and Native American studies with an emphasis in tribal languages and culture at the University of Oklahoma. Tahlate has developed Caddo language curricula, documented Caddo language with heritage speakers, created and managed a Caddo language resource archive, administered an online Caddo language group, and taught free community classes when the circumstances permitted under the mentorship of knowledgeable community members and colleagues. Tahlate has also developed new language learning resources with the help of fellow Caddo community members. It is Tahlate's goal to support Caddo culture keepers and help cultivate new stewards of traditional Haseenay knowledge. On August 1st, 2022, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma hired Alaina Tahlate to work on preserving Caddo language with the last 2 fluent speakers. The Caddo language effort is still working to resume the progress of community classes of decades past in spite of the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2019-2022. During the pandemic, 5 Haseenay speakers passed away from various natural causes.

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