Last fluent speaker of Wichita tribal language preserves what's left
In the end, one woman passes on what's leftBy PAUL MEYER, The Dallas Morning News, 12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 20, 2008
In the times of the beginning there was no sun, no stars, nor anything else as it is now. ... Man-never-known-on-Earth made a man whose name was Having-Power-to-Carry-Light. He also made a woman for the man, and her name was Bright-Shining-Woman. ... They dreamed that things were made for them and when they woke they had the things of which they had dreamed.
At 80, Doris McLemore is the last fluent speaker of the Wichita language. The tribe once numbered tens of thousands from Central and North Texas to Kansas.
– The beginning, according to Wichita myth
ANADARKO, Okla. – The silence can't be far off now, Doris knows. She'll die and an old Indian language will die and the world will move on slightly smaller than before.
No, she never expected to be the last one, the fair-skinned illegitimate daughter of a Wichita woman and white father. But everyone just kept disappearing: her mom, Mae, and brother, Newton, and tribal elders like Bertha Provost and then Vivian McCurdy five Decembers ago.
Now it's just her, Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, the 80-year-old last fluent speaker of the Wichita language, driving alone through the dense fog of an early November morning to preserve what's left. Like most Fridays of late, she left her small house behind a budget motel before 8 a.m., rattling in a white Ford Escort wagon down a two-lane highway to the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes complex.
There she parks and limps inside a brown portable building that doubles as a kitchen where most mornings she makes biscuits and gravy for tribal workers. But today she sits dutifully at the table with the plastic pumpkin tablecloth until Terri Parton arrives with the laptop, connects a microphone and begins to record a list of words and phrases.
Ant. Automobile. Beer. Black horse. Doris says each once in English and three times in her native tongue, the words a staccato series of halting consonants and dancing vowels. Each seems a memory of things past. Of tribal dances down by Camp Creek. Of a once-bustling town called Anadarko, self-described "Indian Capital of the Nation," where Geronimo marched a century ago in the Fourth of July parade. Of a time before Doris got old with diabetes and her heart started to fail.
"How about a boy?" Terri asks.
"Boy. Wiyasaks. Wiyasaks. Wiyasaks. And there's that other word."
"OK, say it the other way now."
"Boy. Wi:ks. Wi:ks. Wi:ks."
"Is there a difference from saying one way or the other?"
Doris tries to explain it in English, can't and gives up.
"So, I don't know who we can ask."
They laugh, resigned.
Terri, the tribe's enrollment clerk, understands. She has watched the number of full-blooded Wichita members – including the Waco, Tawakoni and Keechi bands – fall to just 41 today after once numbering tens of thousands scattered in villages from Central and North Texas to Kansas.
They've tried language classes to teach adults how to say a little, and still hold classes for kids, but the language is too hard and resources too spare to ever resurrect it.
When Doris is gone, the silence will be larger than one woman.
"Any chance of us ever being fluent in it again ... that dies," Terri says.
Then later: "We lose our identity."
Doris, however, does not think much about these things, nor about the decades of economic pressure and persecution that foretold this day. It's just the way life moves.
Languages die all the time, even more lately as the world keeps shrinking. And Oklahoma, with its large Indian population, is one of the places losing them faster than anywhere else.
"If you look at language as a kind of mirror on cognitive function and ways the brain can organize the world ... different languages can do this in different ways," says David Rood, a University of Colorado linguist who has studied Wichita for four decades.
"We're going to lose the knowledge that this is one way that people can function, can think."
The woman was given an ear of corn, whose use she did not know, but this was revealed to her in her heart; that it was to be her food; that it was Mother-Corn; that it was to be the food of the people who should exist in the future, to be used generation after generation.
Doris bends over the slender silver microphone, serious-looking with her thin, unsmiling lips, steeply arched eyebrows, creased skin and silver hair rolled in the back.
"OK, now say, 'I'm in the way,' " Terri tells her.
Doris says it in Wichita, then pauses.
"That sounds strange," she says in a creaky Oklahoma twang. "I haven't said that in forever."
She was born Doris Lamar in 1927, left by her mom with grandparents on their 160-acre allotment just outside Anadarko, along a narrow red earth road flanked by head-high weeds.
By that time, nearly all the Wichita had been forced with six other tribes to the Indian Territory of south-central Oklahoma. The old ways were already vanishing: the deer dances and funeral rites and ritual tattooing of eyelids and construction of intricate beehive houses thatched with swamp grass.
Doris' grandparents lived inside a little white frame house with green trim and a pair of cedar trees outside. Her grandfather, Walter Lamar, broke broncos and drove a team of two burgundy horses, Buddy and Rex, in an uncovered wagon, his two spindly braids spilling from a black Stetson. Her grandmother, Hush-se-ah, was illiterate and spoke only Wichita – an herbal healer who tended a big garden down by a lake, ripe with corn, onions, beans, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and traditional pumpkins.
And ever since Doris had a memory, she could speak Wichita and English. But she didn't seem to belong much in either world. For one, she had blond hair, hair that her grandmother would incessantly cover with a hat. Years later, at Indian high school, students would chide her as a half-breed.
But in the white world, she was still Indian, evident on trips to a small town nearby where she translated for her grandmother, a place she still remembers simply as that "ugly little prejudiced town."
"She'd dress in the Indian way, and I was with her all the time because she couldn't speak English. And when she would shop, I would be right at her elbow to tell her what this costs and that costs, and if she went into a café to eat, we were together. ...
"In those days, see, they spoke the language and a lot of them didn't know English, and they would get punished for talking their own language."
It was rough all the way around, Doris says.
She graduated from Riverside Indian School near Anadarko in 1947 and waitressed in a little café where she met her first husband, a white man who worked in the oil fields. By that time, the number of Wichita had grown so small you couldn't date within the tribe, elders warned, without risk of marrying a relative.
Her grandfather died in 1954, about the time the tourist attraction Indian City U.S.A. opened nearby. A few years later, Doris divorced; she later remarried, raising a family that was more white than Wichita. Her children only learned to speak English, and even her first husband would forget about Doris' roots, reminded only when she would speak with her grandmother.
"You know, I never think of you being an Indian until I hear you talk," he'd say.
Generation after generation the corn was to be used. And if the time should come that they planted corn and something else than corn came up, it would be a sign that the end of the world was at hand.
"Say, 'Ha ha.' Do you know how to say that?" Terri asks of the expression for laughter.
"No. What does it say?"
Terri struggles to pronounce the written Wichita word and gives up.
Doris shrugs. She says she hasn't laughed in a good while.
"Nothing to laugh about."
In the summer of 1964, Dr. Rood first came to Anadarko, a 24-year-old Berkeley grad student looking for a language to study. At the time, there were maybe 200 fluent Wichita speakers, including some elders who didn't know English well.
"In those days, it was thriving," he remembers of his first summer with the tribe.
He didn't realize it at the time, but the transmission of the language from parents to children had already stopped. Learning it, after all, would no longer help land you a job or find you a date. The last generation of speakers had been born, and Dr. Rood had unwittingly begun four decades recording the death of a language.
In those early years, with tribal elder Bertha Provost as his primary assistant, he only met Doris once. She had moved a couple of towns away, working in a little school in El Reno. She divorced her second husband in 1962, a year after her grandmother died, never to remarry.
"If ... I hadn't gotten a divorce, I'd just be a little old white woman somewhere," she still jokes.
Instead, she returned to Anadarko and her Wichita roots, even as the tribe's speakers dwindled. In 1983, Bertha died. Three years later, Dr. Rood returned for another summer.
"I was quite amazed at how few speakers were left at that point. Amazed," he says.
With Bertha gone, he approached Doris and her mother. He quickly found they knew words and meanings that nobody else did.
By 1991, only about a dozen people spoke the language. Three years later, there were no longer any living Wichita-only speakers.
Those who still spoke it occasionally were left with a strange loneliness that comes with having no one who really understands. Things that were funny in Wichita weren't as funny in English. The same with serious things.
"I used to wonder what my mother meant when she said there's no one to talk to," says tribal elder Shirley Davilla, who knows some of the language.
Doris' mom died in 1997 at 92 years old. Soon, Doris was the only one left. Dr. Rood would come every few years for weeks at a time to record Doris, who by that time had retired from a career working at Riverside Indian School in student housing.
One summer, after days of recording inside her house and listening to tapes of dead speakers, a voice started calling to her in dreams.
"Calling me hard. 'Doris! Doris!' I'd go back to sleep and they'd call me again. ...
"I said, 'You know what? Maybe these people don't want me doing this.' "
The next day, she cleansed her house, smoking it with cedar and sage from one end to another. The voices never returned.
At the end, the supply of the necessaries of life will run short. People will no longer accomplish anything. As the time approaches Mother-Corn will cease to grow, and in her stead will appear some despised weed.
There is a word in Wichita meaning that which does not die out. But so many things seem to have disappeared generation after generation: the town Doris remembers as a child, the old dances, and ceremonies and songs – some of which have already lost their meaning. The language, really, is one of the few things left. An identity.
"How many Native Americans have perished? I mean, tribes just cease to exist. Probably in a small way it affects a lot of other people," says Stuart Owings, a tribal elder and singer who still maintains a traditional garden on his land.
"There's a lot of tribes in the United States now that are tribes, but they have no dances, they have no songs. They've lost everything."
In town, word has spread that Indian City has been up for sale, its canary yellow sign long faded. Nearby at the Anadarko Heritage Museum, director Robin Willis remembers when thousands would pass through each year, drawn to town by the seven tribes nearby. Now she's lucky to get 700. "I'm not sure why. I guess things just kind of move on, you know," she says.
Doris knows. On a recent autumn day, she drives through the old landmarks of her life, pausing on the old red earth road near her family's land.
"This place right here," she says pointing to the countryside. "This was the most beautiful place you ever did see. The house is just caved in. No, you can't even see it, can you? I guess it's all caved in."
Doris too will move on one of these days. She believes in heaven and in God, and doesn't figure there's much difference whether it's the Wichita or Christian creator. But if she gets a choice of language in the next world, it would be the one of her mother and grandparents and their parents.
"I'll be speakin' Wichita, I hope," she says.
She wants to be buried where they are, in the old Wichita cemetery with the gopher mounds and tall Johnson grass on a country road near Rock Springs Indian Baptist Church. Everyone will come. Even Dr. Rood, who struggles with funerals, has decided he will attend. Doris deserves it, he says.
Doris still proudly shows the proclamation the linguist gave her at the 2006 tribal dance where she was an honored elder.
"Because of her cooperation, future generations of Wichitas and linguists will know about the wonders and beauty of the Wichita language," he wrote, "information that would have been lost forever without her willingness to share what she knows."
For now, Doris sits inside the portable building, leaning over that microphone, entombing the last of a language.
"My voice will be down in all those lessons for however many years those things last," Doris says. "Who else is going to do it? After me, who else is going to put that stuff down? There's nobody who can."
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