USA: The Last to Speak Wichita Language
WICHITA -– She remembers when everyone around her spoke the language of the Wichita in Kansas. Now they are all gone.
So Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, 82, the last Wichita Indian fluent in the language of her people, carries a small tape recorder to save as much of it as she can, according Native American Times.
She doesn’t know how to play back her words, but she knows how to turn it on and speak into it when a word or phrase that must be preserved comes to mind.
The loss of conversation was so gradual as to be imperceptible to her. The generations of elders passed away over decades, and she never saw this day coming.
“I never expected to be the last speaker,” she said. “I never ever imagined it.”
The Wichita language is one of 199 that is critically endangered, meaning there are fewer than 10 elderly speakers, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
All told, some 2,500 languages are in danger of becoming extinct or have recently disappeared, taking with them poems, legends and proverbs, according to the organization, which released its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger in mid-February.
Several hundred people spoke Wichita four decades ago, when University of Colorado linguistics professor David Rood started studying it. Today, only two or three know many of the words, and only McLemore is fluent, he said. When she’s gone, a unique form of expression will disappear.
“Language reveals a lot about our cognitive system, about how you recognize the world you see around you,” Rood said.
“Every time you lose a language, you’ve lost part of the picture of what the human intellect is capable of.”
McLemore was fluent in Wichita as well as English for as long as she can remember. Born in 1927 to a white father and Wichita mother, she was raised by full-blooded grandparents who spoke only Wichita in the home.
Her mother never used the language because children of that generation were forbidden to speak it in their schools. McLemore’s grandfather could speak English, she said, but her grandmother spoke only Wichita. Her grandmother usually hid McLemore’s blond hair beneath a hat to make her non-Indian appearance less obvious.
McLemore attended a nearby Indian boarding school, became its head cook when she was 15, and graduated in 1947.
“I loved that place, even though you weren’t accepted by some of the Indian students,” she said. She spent the next 30 years as house mother at the school.
Two marriages to white husbands produced two daughters and a son, but she didn’t pass the language on to them, she said. Whenever she talked Wichita with her grandmother, one of her daughters would cry and beg her to stop.
“I was a different person when I was speaking with Grandmother,” she said.
Years later, the daughter regretted that behavior and wishes now that McLemore had forced her to listen to the language, McLemore said.
One of her husbands couldn’t get over her use of the language, either.
“He never thought of me being Indian until he heard me talking to my grandmother,” she said.
For years, McLemore spoke Wichita into a microphone attached to a laptop computer to be transcribed by Rood. He still travels to Anadarko, Okla., periodically to visit McLemore and document whatever he can.
Now, McLemore, her round, expressive face topped by silver hair, is running out of things to say.
But every morning, while she cooks biscuits and gravy for workers in a small mustard-colored building at the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes complex, former tribal president Gary McAdams sits on a metal folding chair at one of the long dining tables, transcribing things she’s already recorded using a writing system developed by Rood.
It is handy for McAdams to have McLemore around. When in doubt, he can ask her to repeat a word so he can accurately transcribe its sound.
Wichita is a difficult language, a halting flow of consonant and vowel sounds broken by glottal stops, sounds made by a quick cutoff of air in the back of the throat.
“I don’t know that anyone will ever speak it again,” says McAdams, who was tribal president from 1990 until last year. “Doris is amazing for being able to retain as much as she does without having anyone to speak it to on a daily basis.”
One day last week, McLemore and McAdams discussed ways to spell Wichita, the city that was named for the tribe. They also grappled with its meaning.
McAdams spells “Wichita, Kansas” as “Ki:akharikwita.”
McLemore says the meaning of “wichita” isn’t clear even to her.
“I was reading in a book (it means) ‘raccoon eyes’, but I don’t even know how to say ‘raccoon.”’ she said.
One pronunciation of “wichita” includes a sound that is similar to the phrase meaning “something on top, like a lid,” she said.
That could refer to the roofs of the grass, dome-shaped houses the Wichita built when they lived in Kansas during the Civil War.
Those roofs were lower and flatter than the houses they built in Oklahoma, making them more aerodynamic to suit the high Kansas winds, she said.
In 1864, 1,500 members of the Wichita and affiliated tribes had been forced by Confederate troops to leave their reservations in Oklahoma. They settled at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers in an area between what is now Murdock and 13th Street.
According to a history provided by the tribe, they had no land to farm and few friends. Many starved, and others suffered from smallpox and cholera epidemics. They had only 822 people when they returned to Oklahoma after the war.
J.R. Mead, an early Wichita developer, suggested naming the city after the tribe, and the name first appeared in print in 1868 on an advertising circular distributed to cattlemen moving their herds north along the Chisholm Trail.
Mead said “Wichita” meant “scattered lodges” but scholars and others have argued that it means “tattooed faces,” “paint face” or “bear eyes.”
McLemore is certain it doesn’t mean “scattered lodges.” “No way!” she said. The language is complex. Rood said it takes 60 to 90 minutes to transcribe even a small portion of it.
There are no words for “hello” or “good-bye,” for example. The closest to a “hello” you can give someone is a phrase for “How are you?” – “e : si : raci : ci.”
Today, the roughly 2,400 remaining Wichitas don’t feel much of a connection to the city named for them, McAdams said. “For the most part, most of our people don’t know much about our history,” he said.
He wishes more knew it and is trying to preserve as much of the tribe’s culture as he can - not only the language, but songs, dances and oral histories from elders like McLemore.
McLemore is diabetic and years ago struggled with heart problems. She had a pacemaker implanted in 2006 and has felt fine since then.
She works 20 hours a week at the complex, still lives in her own home and does her own housekeeping.
“I can’t do things I used to do,” she said, “but I sure give it a whirl.” Whatever comes of the language, it will be her voice that speaks it to future generations on tape recordings.
That is a comfort to her, and something of a marvel. “They’ll be able to hear my voice way down the line even though I won’t be here,” she said.
Published by: Liv Inger Somby