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Three-Thousand-Year-Old Living Language Loses Last Monolingual Speaker


Less than 20 Native American languages spoken in the United States are projected to survive another 100 years and the Chickasaw language, or Chikashshanompa', is just one of many tribal languages that culture keepers are working to preserve. In 1994, the estimated number of fluent Chikashshanompa' speakers was less than 1,000 and today, the Chickasaw language has less than 75 fluent speakers, with the vast majority older than age 55. It is because of these declining numbers that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) categorizes it as “severely endangered.”

Emily Johnson Dickerson, a full-blood Chickasaw who spoke only the Chickasaw language her entire life, died at her Ada, Oklahoma, home on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, at the age of 93. The Chickasaw elder was one of the few remaining fluent speakers of the Chickasaw language and the last monolingual Chickasaw language speaker, according to Joshua Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Nation Language Department.

Hinson has devoted his career to reviving the Chickasaw language and said that the loss of Dickerson was monumental. “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the loss and what this means to the Chickasaw Nation,” he said.

Emily Dickerson was a treasured elder who held the Chickasaw language and ways of life close to her heart,” said Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby. “This is a sad day for all Chickasaw people because we have lost a cherished member of our Chickasaw family and an unequaled source of knowledge about our language and culture. My condolences go out to her closest friends and family as we mourn the loss of a woman who holds a special place in the hearts of her family and her tribe.

The Chickasaw language is of the Muskogean family of Native American languages. It descended from a common ancestral language—along with Creek, Choctaw and several others—and originated 3,000-5,000 years ago. Chickasaw was the primary language of Chickasaw people for hundreds of years. Choctaw and Chickasaw together form the Western branch of the Muskogean language family and are related to Alabama, Koasati, Mvskoke (Creek)-Seminole, Hitchiti and Mikasuki.

The value of the Chickasaw language is immeasurable and the Chickasaw Nation has implemented several programs and services over the years to ensure the survival of their language. Community language classes, language camps and clubs and the Chickasaw Master-Apprentice program are just a few of the tools available to learn the Chickasaw language locally. Online, anyone can become a Chickasaw speaker through self-study programs, language classes on and using the Chickasaw Language Basics app. Readers can learn more about the origins of the Chickasaw language and the Chickasaw Nation’s current preservation efforts at the Language Channel.

By Chickasaw TV

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