Plains Apache is a critically endangered language spoken by the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma. In 2008, the tribe, along with University of Oklahoma linguist Sean O’Neill, received an NEH Documenting Endangered Languages grant to develop new resources for language revitalization–an urgent need, as Plains Apache’s last fluent speaker died during the grant period. This project illustrates how vital NEH support is to language preservation, as tribes and their partners rush to collect and preserve their languages before they are lost.
O’Neill and his tribal collaborators’ grant project had originally proposed to work with Plains Apache’s last fluent speaker, Alfred Chalepah, Jr., to create a Plains Apache grammar and dictionary. After Chalepah’s unfortunate death in 2008, however, they decided to shift their focus to working with the language’s semi-fluent speakers. Many of these speakers were elders who were scattered across a large area which made it hard for them to gather and speak Plains Apache. Thanks to the financial resources provided by the grant, these elders were able to meet once a week for a period of five years to discuss and pool their knowledge of the language. Though none of the elders who participated had the individual knowledge of a fluent speaker, their discussions of Plains Apache songs, storytelling, and medicines, which were recorded, created an archive of community knowledge that went beyond what would be included in a grammar or a dictionary. “Every language is a book of life, with everything you need to help you survive—stories, songs, medicine—embedded in it,” O’Neill said. “That knowledge is being destroyed at everyone’s peril.” Grant funding also allowed O’Neill to hire a graduate student and process existing Plains Apache archival sources so they could be consolidated and placed in the tribe’s possession. The combined linguistic data from archival and community sources has given the tribe the resources they need to develop new tools and classroom materials that are vital to language revitalization.
This project also helped preserve Plains Apache’s social life: the elders’ meetings allowed Plains Apache to be recorded in conversation, rather than simply preserving words in isolation as is common in linguistic sources. These meetings also helped participants feel proud of their language–an important opportunity for healing for a community that had long been made to feel ashamed of its language.