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State of the Choctaw Language School

State of the Choctaw Language School

Where we are and where we are go
By BRANDON FRYE:  Choctaw Nation

   Through the work and dedication of many Choctaws over the years, our language has remained a legacy that is still thriving. The Choctaw language's ongoing story has a rich history, with characters ranging from chiefs to community members playing a role. And looking forward, there are a number of exciting developments for the Choctaw language and the school dedicated to teaching it: "Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna," or the School of Choctaw Language.

Figure 1

Executive Director of Education School Programs Jim Parrish and Assistant Director of the language school Teresa Billy in the lobby of the new school building  in Durant.

 - Where we were -

For Choctaws, the language is a way of "tracking back to who we are. And if you don't know who you are, you don't know where you are going," according to Jim Parrish, Executive Director of Education School Programs and Director of the Choctaw Language School.

Ian Thompson, Director of the Historic Preservation Department, traces the identity of Choctaw people back through 500 generations of Choctaw ancestors who developed a unique community, spirituality, and language through interacting with the landscape of our homeland.

"This way of existing and of looking at the world is built into the structure and the words of the Choctaw language," Thompson said. "Today even after years of colonization, the Choctaw language is still at the center of all things Choctaw; it connects us with our indigenous roots, relationships, and spirituality."

In the 19th century, the Choctaw language gained an advocate with Christian missionary Cyrus Byington who produced the original Choctaw Language Dictionary with the help of Choctaws in Mississippi, and later also with Choctaws in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). With his dictionary as well as his Choctaw translations for Christian hymns, parts of the Old Testament, and the entire New Testamen the helped the Choctaws form their words into a written language. Up until then the language had not been written.

More recently, in 1997, the Choctaw language gained many more advocates when then Chief Gregory Pyle decided to create a language department and preserve the language, which led to the development of the School of the Choctaw Language.

"Chief Pyle told me one of the first programs he wanted to have would preserve the language," said Joy Culbreath, life-long educator and current Director of Education Special Projects for the Nation. "At that point, I began to figure out, think, and see what we wanted to do."

Culbreath collected a team of educators and Choctaw language speakers and pushed forward to teaching Choctaw over the internet and in person, to children, to students in high schools, and to community members in and out of the bounds of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO).

Since then, initiative has spread to Choctaw leaders, citizens, elders, educators, and curious students of all ages, all wanting to embrace their culture and learn their language.

- Where we are -

Chief Gary Batton has picked up the torch which Pyle, Culbreath, and others had earlier lit. "Chief Batton is carrying on all of these dreams and all of our work with the language. It shows that he is definitely on board for all we are doing with the language department," Culbreath said.

"Our language is what distinguishes us and makes us unique from the rest of the world," Chief Batton said. "It encompasses who we are as Chahta people as it reminds us of our rich culture and past."

Now, there are 18 Choctaw instructors at the School of Choctaw Language who are teaching students at many points of development in their studies, from children to adults, beginners and up.

These first and second language speakers share their knowledge to all of the Choctaw Nation's head start locations, teaching our youth Choctaw. They teach students from 38 high schools across southeast Oklahoma, as well as college students. Instructors meet CNO employees where they work for language lessons. And there are 33 active community instructors across the Choctaw Nation.

With the help of educators with the Nation, the Choctaw language is now considered on the same level as Spanish and French in our public schools and taught as a world language.

- Where we are going -

Today, "we are hoping to have the new Choctaw Dictionary published by the end of the year," Parrish said.

The newest edition will be made by Choctaws and for Choctaws. It will also be brought more up-to-date and will more accurately reflect the dialect of Oklahoma Choctaw speakers, according to Teresa Billy, Assistant Director of the Choctaw Language School. Additionally, the new dictionary will be "easier and more user-friendly for the learner," Billy said. "In 100 years, when we are not here, someone should be able to sit down, look at this dictionary, and learn."

After finalization of the new dictionary, avenues for an online audio-dictionary and mobile applications will open up. These interactive learning opportunities would contain the approximately 4,000 Choctaw words, as well as sentences, also available in the new published dictionary.

There is also a new curriculum textbook on the way. Billy said, in addition to the completed Choctaw I and II textbooks, the Choctaw III curriculum textbook will be finalized and printed before the next school year, Fall 2015. This new book will be used in college and high school classes by students and teachers alike, and will allow for a deeper, more advanced understanding of the language.

She added, "The content of the Choctaw I book is already on the website. Anybody who wants to download it can download it, chapter-by-chapter."

There are more instructors on staff right now than ever before. These instructors are a mixture of Choctaw first-language-speaking elders who have lived the culture and grown up speaking Choctaw, and their diligent students who have learned directly from those elders and put in the work to be able to also teach the language.

To continually bolster the number of instructors, two years ago the school began a teacher education scholarship called "Chahta Anumpa" (Choctaw language), which takes in collegelevel education students and-at no cost to the student-prepares them to teach the language. There are currently two student scholars, each preparing to work for the Choctaw Language School once they graduate.

The Choctaw Language school currently offers a unique Choctaw language learning experience. There are more educators available. The curriculum is polished and published. Anyone interested in reading, writing, and speaking Choctaw has access to Choctaw language experts who lived it-an opportunity that will not always be available. And the school offers many opportunities to get involved with the language.

You can also learn Choctaw by spending time and interacting with fluent Choctaw speakers, or by visiting to view and study Choctaw lessons. Chahta chia ho? (Are you Choctaw?). Chahta chia hokmvt Chahta Anumpa ish anumpuhola chike! (If you are Choctaw, then you need to speak Choctaw!). We here at the School of Choctaw Language await and welcome all persons eager to learn Choctaw.

Figure 2

Instructor Elsie Hicks, first-language speaker, teaches high school students in  Pocola a Choctaw language lesson through video conference. 

Figure 4

Lillie Roberts

"It's a part of who we are. I am driven at this point in my life to give what I know of our language to anyone who wants it, hoping it will land somewhere and become something that will grow. And that person can leave it for someone of the following generation. "We can leave curriculum, we can leave what we developed. We can tell our stories and have those recorded. It's important for me to be here, to teach what I know, because it's a part of who I am. "It's difficult to put into words how I feel. I want to do as much as possible in the time I do have left. And, wherever I can give, to whomever I can give, I'm there."

 Figure 5

Caleb Taylor

"I believe the Choctaw language is important because it keeps our culture alive. "Language is one of the best ways to pass our heritage from generation to generation. It expresses who we are and where we come from."

 Figure 3 

Leigh Ward

"I was very blessed to grow up in a household where Choctaw was spoken. Learning how to speak and write Choctaw is essential to the culture, identity and heritage of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Our language is the backbone of our tribe. If we should lose our language, then we will ultimately lose our identity as a tribe and our uniqueness. If the Choctaw Language should become extinct, then other aspects of our culture would pass way, such as our sacred stories and lessons told and taught to us by fluent speakers. For these reasons and out of respect for our ancestors and current fluent speakers, The School of Choctaw Language challenges each member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to get involved in learning and preserving our sacred language."

Photos by Brandon Frye
This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more history please refer to the following sites.


Choctaw Vowels
Choctaw Greetings
Lesson of the Day