Since time immemorial, languages have been passed down in the home, from parent to child. It is how languages survive ― and cultures thrive.
And it is for this reason that in Halay Turning Heart’s home, only the Yuchi language is spoken. “We have three kids, ages 6, 4, and 2, and we are raising them to be first-language speakers,” says the administrator of the Yuchi Language Project (YLP), a community-based, nonprofit organization in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, launched in 1994 by her father and YLP’s executive director, Dr. Richard Grounds.
“I have never spoken to my children in the English language. Since the womb, I’ve immersed them in our Yuchi language,” Turning Heart explains.
For more than 25 years, YLP’s mission has been “to keep alive the rich heritage of the Yuchi people by creating new, young speakers of our language through breath-to-breath immersion methods with fluent speakers and children.” Over the years, through its many language classes, culture camps, and other Indigenous programs, YLP has created more than 20 fluent second-language speakers fully capable of teaching the Yuchi language.
“We’ve had a long history of language loss, counting down, down, down, and now we’re actually counting forward and adding people to our growing list of fluent speakers,” says Turning Heart proudly.
Linguists have defined Yuchi as an isolate language, meaning it is ancient and unrelated to any other languages. It is, as Turning Heart says, “unique.” And it has become urgent to keep it alive. Only 1% of about 2,000 Yuchi people speak the language, and many of the elders, the first-language speakers, have walked on.
While Turning Heart’s first language is English, she grew up learning Yuchi and later earned a degree in linguistics from Dartmouth College. Now the lifelong language learner has become the teacher. “I was blessed to have spent many, many hours learning from elders as a child. Today, I see my role as being the bridge between the elders and the younger generation.”
To that end, Turning Heart expanded YLP’s program offerings and opened the Yuchi Immersion School in 2018, where children from infancy to nine years old ― grouped into age cohorts of CHUP’E (frogs), shUthl@nE (otters), and dathlas’E (coyotes) ― are immersed in the language, foods, arts, sports, storytelling, and other ways of the Yuchi people, while also reading, writing, and doing arithmetic that meets Oklahoma State and U.S. Department of Education standards. English is never spoken at the Yuchi House, despite a 2010 law declaring English the official language of Oklahoma.
With 22 students now attending the full-day Yuchi Immersion School, Turning Heart is pouring her heart into a new language-learning project. Using a similar immersion curriculum that has proven quite successful at the Yuchi House, she is bringing the Yuchi language back to its rightful place, where it originated ― inside every Yuchi home.
A focus on home immersion learning
In an annual survey of the Yuchi community, YLP learned that students were immersed in Yuchi all day at the Yuchi House and then would go home to an English-only environment. As a result, the Yuchi Language Project is now heavily focused on revitalizing the Yuchi language in the home to build a stronger support network for language learners and create living language habitats.
“Our Yuchi language, like other Native languages, has been chased out of almost all domains of daily life for four generations, when the children were forcibly removed from their homes and subjected to often brutal experiences of boarding schools,” Turning Heart explains how the language was almost lost. But she adds with much hope, “This project marks a significant new direction in empowering the Yuchi community to reclaim the language in that most critical space of all ― the home setting.”
With a $75,000 grant through First Nations’ Native Language Immersion Initiative (NLII), which was designed to build capacity of and support Native language immersion education programs in tribal communities, YLP launched its home-based language immersion program in early 2022.
YLP collaborated with the Advocates for California Indigenous Language Survival (AICLS) to create the curriculum for young families. AICLS specializes in helping Native communities create new language speakers. They developed phrase lists, labels, recordings, posters, games, and books around common, home-related domains, such as food, cooking, cleaning, and potty training. In addition, YLP program staff meets one-on-one with parents and caregivers to mentor and coach, and they conduct check-ins at the home.
A key component of the program is to grow the language capacity of the parents and caregivers as second-language learners so that they can eventually become teachers to their children. To accomplish this important objective, master speakers meet with them twice a week for language-immersion training.
After less than a year from the program’s launch, YLP already reports success. More than 10 children, from infants to elementary school-age, are being raised in homes where Yuchi is the primary language. “And some children are hearing the language in the womb because pregnant mothers are talking and singing to them in Yuchi,” says Turning Heart, adding with profound emphasis, “This is the first time we’ve had new children speaking in almost 100 years.”
Some young home immersion learners have earned the highest awards at the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair.
The YLP leader is amazed at the progress made in such a short time. “It’s a huge turnaround to have natural language transmission in the home. The first words of our little ones are in Yuchi, they’re playing together in Yuchi, they’re using Yuchi expressions. It’s innate to them now, so our efforts are working.”
A coalition of key partnerships
Through the years, Yuchi Language Project has developed strategic partnerships with over 12 local and regional organizations, including churches, libraries, and the Tribal Languages Center at Bacone College to help carry out its mission of keeping the Yuchi language alive.
To ensure the success of the new home immersion program, it continues to take a village. YLP is grateful for the cooperation of Yuchi elders, the core group of families establishing language nests in their homes, and the broader Yuchi community.
Also, financial support from donors, like First Nations, has been critical. Oklahoma is home to 39 Native American tribes. The Yuchi tribe is the only one that is not federally recognized and therefore, does not receive annual funding from the federal government.
“As a nonprofit, we don’t have any tribal funding. We are completely grant-funded, so the First Nations grant makes a huge difference,” says Turning Heart. This special immersion project is also supported by a cash match of $12,000 from the 7th Generation Fund and $13,000 from Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
And YLP continues to build new partnerships. Through its advocacy of the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages ― a worldwide proclamation to build awareness that an estimated 50 percent of today’s spoken languages will be extinct or seriously endangered by 2100 ― YLP is helping a Pertame Aboriginal group in the northern territory of Australia develop a similar home language immersion program in that country.
‘Suddenly, a spark of new life’
The Yuchi home-based language revitalization program is the key to restoring and preserving the language, according to Turning Heart. “We have been rebuilding language domains in the homes that were almost lost because kids haven’t been raised in the language for many decades.”
She says that 20 years ago, speaking Yuchi was simply a novelty in the community. Now the Yuchi people have really embraced their unique language and fully grasp what they stand to lose. “We’re really in a better position than I’ve ever seen before. We are living the dream,” shares Turning Heart, admitting, however, that they were not certain the home immersion program would work in the beginning. “Even some of our elders, I don’t know if they believed it could happen because they’ve only seen language loss. But suddenly, there is a spark of new life.”
The YLP administrator believes they are witnessing a rebirth of the Yuchi language. “Given the progress I have seen in my own family, as well as in our immersion school, I’m very confident the language will live beyond my lifetime. The vision is that these kids will pass it on to their kids, and so on, so it will be a natural language transmission process instead of the language always having to be in triage. We are finally overcoming that cycle after all these years.”
Turning Heart’s first name, “Halay,” means “breathe again” in Yuchi. How fitting that she is one of the leaders behind a home immersion program that is breathing new life into the Yuchi language.