Osage

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The Osage people suffered a familiar degradation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: subjugation, forced resettlement from Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas to Oklahoma, and ultimately a learned sense of futility.

“I grew up hearing Osage spoken all around me,” said Herman Mongrain Lookout in an Invisible Nations video on Vimeo, “[but] it never dawned on me to try to learn it.” At the time — the end of the twentieth century — there were perhaps only two dozen elderly second-language speakers of Osage. When he considered a change of mind, his uncle dissuaded him: “Don’t learn Osage. It’s dead. let it go. Go learn Spanish or French, something that’s going to do you some good.”

Yet literally on the eve of the millennium, when challenged to learn Osage, he decided to commit to it. He could pray in Osage, as he had done so with his father, but he knew no conversational Osage. Yet the obstacle that occurred to him was not in the spoken language, but the written.

“When I first started trying to write down some of those sounds, I ran into problems with it, because every class I went to they never had an orthography… they would say ‘Write it down the way you hear it.’

“Well, I wrote it down all kinds of ways, but when I got home, I couldn’t read it. I never could really nail it using letters of the [Latin} alphabet, because they’re dedicated to the English sound system. So then I said, I’m going to have to create [a new set of symbols] dedicated to the sound of Osage.”

In 2004, the 31st Council of the Osage Nation passed a resolution initiating the Osage Language Program. Soon after, Lookout — known as “Mogri” — was hired as the director, and was afforded office space in downtown Pawhuska, Oklahoma. He began developing a series of symbols unique to Osage.

“Having your own orthography,” explained Joshua Hinson, Chickasaw Nation Language Advocate, “particularly one that doesn’t particularly look like your Roman alphabet is pragmatically nice because you don’t have to fight against what your learners [already] know about the English alphabet.”

Lookout, now Master Teacher of the Osage Language Program, started with 578 sentences in the new script, believing that learning this basic core and repeating it would imprint the symbols and their sounds on the new learners. “And it did.”

The new Osage orthography was taken up with alacrity by students and teachers, and has been consistently and regularly used throughout the Osage Nation since 2006, with the character-set being periodically adjusted.

“I think the most important thing about creating an orthography,” said Warren Queton, Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Language Advocate, “is reclaiming your own identity as people, in terms of the sovereignty of your nation. An orthography brings back all these ideas about how important language is, saying, ‘We’re going to do it our own way, whatever our community expects. We’re going to make our own way in the language world. That’s pretty significant.’

“When you see Cherokee, you know it’s Cherokee,” Hinson said. “When you see Osage, you know it’s Osage.”

The Osage script was added to Unicode in 2016. Osage font and keyboard software are available for iOS and Chrome.

Weekly Osage languages classes are currently offered at beginner and intermediate levels in Tulsa, Skiatook and Bartlesville, as well as online instruction. According to the Osage Nation website, there are now five advanced students and approximately 300 currently enrolled in the tribal program classes.

“To have an orthography,” Queton said, “is one more tool to say, as Osage people, `This is who we are. This is our identity. This is our language. We made this. We accepted it. We reclaimed it. Now we’re going to carry it on to the future.”

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