Oneida Language Revitalization Program - A Short History

The Oneida Language Revitalization Program began in the spring of 1996 in response to a national crisis, a state of emergency, in which a survey of Elders indicated there were only 25-30 Elders left who learned to speak Oneida as their first language. As a Nation we have an urgent need to produce speakers to continue Oneida Language. When many of us were little, we heard Oneida spoken all of the time by the old people. We must ensure that our little ones hear Oneida and learn to speak Oneida. A ten year plan was developed to connect Elders with Oneida Language/Culture Trainees in a semi-immersion process which would produce speakers and teachers of Oneida language. Our goal is to hear our Oneida language spoken throughout our community.

In the spring of 1996, ten Elders were transferred to the Language Revitalization Program and five trainees were transferred that summer. We have since lost our beloved speaker, Mary Jourdan. Two of our elders are over 90 years old. Nine Elders have worked with the Trainees: Lydia Denny, Hudson Doxtator, Melinda Doxtator, Luella Elm, Leona Smith, Helen Skenandore, Margaret Summers, Lavinia Webster, and Loretta Webster. The Elders work with the Trainees every morning in the semi-immersion process. The Oneida Language Trainees are: Inez Skenandore, Mike King, Curt Summers, LeAnne Thompson, Dawn Cornelius, Lataklokwat Danforth, Richard Baird, and Jessica Powless. Leander Danforth is the Language and Culture Educator. Tracy Williams is the Language Trainee Supervisor.

It has been an intense five years at (the language house) with the Elders and Trainees spending every morning together in language semi-immersion sessions. The Elders tested the Trainees speaking abilities and indicated the Trainees were ready to conduct language classes for the community. The current weekly schedule of the Oneida Language Trainees includes two hours per day with Elders and teaching classes for families, employee departments, at the Oneida Library and the Oneida Museum, Oneida Nation School system. A former Trainee, Ken Metoxen, is the the language teacher for Head Start. The Trainees also provide services as substitute teachers for Oneida Nation Schools.

In between all these classes, the trainees are busy developing language lesson plans and creating innovative language teaching materials. We are fortunate to have access to stories from the WPA project (1939-1940), the Bilingual program (1970's) and the work of our precious Elders, Maria Hinton and Amos Christjohn.

Learning the language creates many positive feelings such as: learning about being proud to be Oneida, working with our Elders, really learning listening skills, seeing the joy on the learners' faces, and feeling a connection with Oneida people in Canada and New York.

Oneida Speakers on WPA project 1939

Floyd Lounsbury working with Lydia (Isaac) Green, a Cayuga speaker, in 1960

Oneida speakers on language project 1990s

The long range plan includes:

  • Official recognition of our Elders as National Treasures.
  • Developing and implementing Oneida Nation Language Teacher Certification based on competencies in speaking, linguistics, teaching, curriculum, and materials development.
  • Developing a career path for our youth to become fluent speakers and teachers.
  • Planning for summer immersion family language camps.
  • Hearing Oneida language spoken throughout our Nation.

The Winds of Change, magazine article on Native languages states:
"Of North America's 300-some Native languages, about 210 are still spoken. Very few of the 210 are, however, still spoken by children. Even Navajo, by far the largest language group with 200,000 speakers, appears to be in trouble. A generation ago, 90 percent of Navajo children entering school spoke their language; today, the reverse is true - 90 percent of Navajo children entering school speak English, but not Navajo. In Alaska, only two of the 20 native languages are still spoken by children and one language - Eyak- has one remaining elderly speaker." (Nancy Lord, "Native Tongues," Spring 1999:62)

As Oneida people, it is our responsibility to carry the Oneida language to the present and future generations.