Language Apprentices 2023Photo by Chris Jennings

Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna apprentices pose for a picture with their instructors and tribal leadership. The four apprentices have completed a rigorous language program and are now fluent in the Choctaw Language.

Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna apprentices graduate from inaugural program

By Chris Jennings
November 1, 2023

Over the last several years, the number of fluent speakers of the Choctaw language has declined. As most of the generation that can speak the language gets older, learning the language is one of the most important things Choctaw people can do to preserve their identity and sovereignty.

The School of Choctaw Language (Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna) developed a curriculum so they could better teach the language. Choctaw classes are available at several high schools, colleges, Head Start, and online. Despite all of these steps, the declining rate of fluent speakers was putting the Tribe in a crisis.

That’s why, with the help of the tribal council, the Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna took its biggest and boldest move yet.

On Tuesday, September 6, that move came to fruition. The first four apprentices in the Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna Apprentice Program were recognized as fluent speakers of the Choctaw language.

The program took work. It was a full-time job in a classroom setting, learning Choctaw. Madeleine Freeman was one of the apprentices, “It was a really interesting experience. I think when I was first going into it, I wasn’t really sure what to anticipate, but I knew that it was going to be rigorous; it had to be a rigorous environment,” she said.

Freeman, who grew up speaking some Choctaw with her grandmother, took the opportunity very seriously, “From the get-go, it was never just a job; it was never just something that I’d be doing in my free time,” Freeman said.

Chief Gary Batton told those in attendance that what these apprentices and teachers were doing highlighted servant leadership, one of the core Choctaw beliefs. By mentoring and passing down the language and culture, they embody what it is to be and feel Choctaw. “I think it’s very important to understand that because we don’t want to lose that feeling of who we are as Choctaw people,” Batton said.

Preserving the language has been something tribal leadership has discussed for years. Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr. Said, “We have talked about how to continue our language, how to preserve it for years to come, and It’s an honor for Chief and I to know that you’ve set out on this path and this vision,” he said to the apprentices.

Teresa Billy a Program Manager with the Language Department said, “Because of COVID and having lost numerous elders and speakers in the community, our language was in a crisis mode. It’s called language death, when you no longer have children in the home, learning the language and speaking the language, no new learners.”

With the loss of a single, fluent language speaker, every Choctaw person loses a piece of their identity. Billy emphasizes this, saying it’s who you are. “It says that here’s a body of people who have a set of life values, customs, traditions, stories, songs, language, dancing, music, all of that is embedded in language. It’s who we are,” said Billy.

Billy said they knew with the language crisis occurring, they needed to step up their efforts in teaching the language.

That’s when the apprentice program was developed to create a situation where people had to learn the language because that’s how they had to communicate. It was a total immersion program, like being dropped into a foreign country.

“They’re hearing the language; they’re learning the language; hearing the verbs that are embedded in the language; hearing it spoken; looking at words; understanding words or writing sentences; speaking to one another. It’s very intense; it’s high level,” said Billy.

Seeing the apprentices get recognized and hearing them address those in attendance completely in Choctaw, only pausing to translate what they were saying in English as a courtesy. It was a powerful moment for those who taught them.

“This right here is something that just really brings joy to me. Growing up, I never thought that it would come to this. I never thought I would be teaching the language, so seeing this is something special to me. Now, I feel like I don’t have to worry as much as I used to,” said Dora Wickson, a program manager with the language department.

Anjanette Williston, Director of the Apprentice Program, felt the same way, “It’s heartwarming seeing these apprentices, and how much they have developed their proficiency with the spoken language is mind-blowing,” she said.

Williston grew up with Choctaw being spoken to her and hearing it in church but says it was never something she sat and learned. Now, it’s been generations since there has been a fluent speaker in her family. She has hope now, though. “You know, it can be taught, this language, it’s not going to die if we continue on this track,” said Williston.

The success of the first Language Apprentice Program is evident when you look at their next class. What started as five apprentices a year ago has now tripled to 15 in its second year.

The language crisis isn’t over, though. Each apprentice gave a message of urgency in teaching the language and encouraging others to learn.

“I’m only 24, And I already feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time by not doing what’s so important. So if you only learn a little bit, you can always add on to that, and you know, hopefully, soon, we’ll be speaking Choctaw together,” said Freeman.

In closing, Billy told a story of a conversation she had with her late husband, Curtis Billy. “He [Curtis] said, what would you do if you had anything you could have in the world? What would you want to see? I said I would want to see 50 brand new language teachers. And folks, when we graduate this next 15, we’re almost halfway there, and that just makes my heart full of pride, because that seemed impossible five years ago,” said Billy.