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A family that speaks Yuchi at home faces pushback from outsiders and tribal members


The U.N. estimates that every two weeks, an Indigenous language is lost. Many Native American tribes offer language classes to elementary school students. But linguists say the best way to learn is to start at birth. Laurel Morales reports on one Oklahoma family that's banned English from their home in an attempt to save their native language.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Halay Turning Heart's first language is English. But her father wanted her to be fluent in Yuchi. So when she was a child, he introduced her to Yuchi elders, who became her best friends.

HALAY TURNING HEART: I would try to speak as much as I could, you know, making my own sentences. And I would try things out, then ask her, (speaking Yuchi) - is this right? And if she couldn't understand me, I knew it wasn't right (laughter).

MORALES: Halay loved learning the language. With each new word, she felt a sense of belonging. When Halay was a teenager, she was called to lead ceremonies. It was then that she realized she was one of the few who could speak Yuchi fluently.

H TURNING HEART: It's like becoming an elder before your time. With - you know, with all due respect and humility, but it really is - it can be a burden because there's no one else to call upon.

MORALES: In the 1800s, the U.S. government sent the Yuchi from their eastern homeland to Oklahoma on what's known as the Trail of Tears. Then the federal government forced hundreds of thousands of Native American children to attend boarding schools, where teachers punished them for speaking their language. Today, the Yuchi remains a tribe unrecognized by the federal government.

H TURNING HEART: Because our elders have grown up in a society that devalued the language, that they were often made fun of or oppressed for the language, they were warning me. They were saying, go get your education. Do something you can make money at. The language isn't going to get you anywhere.

MORALES: Halay did go away to college. She studied linguistics, which only deepened her belief that language connected her to her history and identity. That's also where she met her husband, a Lakota, who wanted a partner committed to her culture.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Yuchi).

MORALES: Today, they have three children under the age of 6, and all speak Yuchi at home - sometimes Lakota. They also know English, but they only speak it elsewhere. The older kids take pride in teaching their baby sister Yuchi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Yuchi).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Yuchi).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Yuchi).

MORALES: The family faces many critics in Oklahoma, where state legislators passed a law making English the official language in 2010.

H TURNING HEART: I don't think everyone really understands it or, like, why are you doing this?

MORALES: And other times, her kids have to deal with the criticism.

H TURNING HEART: They'll say to my kids, oh, I can't understand you. You have to speak English here. You know, sometimes, just us against the world.

MORALES: Halay and her husband, Jiles Turning Heart, also face tension within their community. Other tribal members fear Yuchi kids might fall behind in an English-dominant world. But the couple continues to come back to the research that points to the cognitive benefits. They say the Yuchi language also links them to their heritage.

JILES TURNING HEART: Without that, like, there's such a search for, you know, your connection, you know, to the world, to your culture, and you could spend years doing that, like, later in life. But with your language, you really know who you are and where you come from.

MORALES: Jiles has seen it stripped away within his own family. And now, he can be a part of building it back up.

J TURNING HEART: Having the kids learn Yuchi as their first language I feel like is a gift as well - something that I wish that I was given.

H TURNING HEART: It gives them that identity and strength and confidence. If you know who you are, then you can do anything.

MORALES: It's a gift Jiles and Halay continue to give to their children as well as the whole Yuchi community. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales.

SUMMERS: This story comes to us from the podcast 2 Lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Morales