Huge Push to Save Endangered Seneca Language

The Seneca Nation of Indians have a deep rooted history in Western New York. Stories of their ancestors are here and their culture from ceremonies to traditions is still very much alive. But the language, a huge part of their culture, is dying. That’s why there is a big push to preserve the language.

The keepers of the western door are connected to the land, its where their ancestors lived not long ago. That way of life is being preserved starting at a young age. At this Faithkeepers school in Salamanca, kids are learning about Seneca tradition, culture and Seneca language through activities

From circle time, to one on one lessons with teachers. You can see and hear young kids learning the Seneca language. On the field in Gowanda, you’ll hear those teachings being passed down.

Gowanda Middle School eighth grade students have been announcing the varsity and junior varsity lacrosse games all in the Seneca language. They are first school district in Western New York to do so.

Jacky Yallup said, “this is something to put the natives in a positive light, to help raise awareness. We are still here and our language is still alive – we just got to take a few more steps to help it thrive.”

Jacky Yallup is a Seneca language teacher and explains students announce goals,who assisted and the score. There’s a push to use the language that’s taught in schools now more than ever.

Yallup said, “because we’re losing it. We’re losing our language and I would encourage others students to take this class because we’re going to need everything we’ve got to keep it.”

Currently out of the three Seneca territories in Western New York there’s only 30 elders left who speak the language fluently compared to 10 years ago when there were 200 fluent speakers.

Teacher Rachael Wolfe said, “there’s a bigger push to preserve the language because our elders are dying. Its urgent.. We’re at an emergency status as far as our language is concerned.

Norma Kennedy is 85 years old and is one of the Seneca elders left.

Kennedy said, “I was immersed in it. My mother and father spoke the language. Everyone in the neighborhood spoke Seneca so it was easy for me to pick it up.”

Kennedy remembers going to a one room school house as a young girl on the Allegheny Reservation and being told in class not to speak the language.

It was at places like school houses and boarding schools where native American children were sent to be westernized. The Indian language was not allowed and started to become lost.

Kennedy said, “some of them were disciplined because they spoke the Indian language. So they were told to forget it. They really tried to get the language out of us.”

Now there is a cultural resurgence. Norma works with the adult language class Elders are their main source of knowledge to acquire information about how Seneca is spoken and cultural practices and ways working with teachers

Adrian John said, “we’re like that bridge between them and the young children and training adults in that process. Working with the elder learning how to teach young kids is our process we want to try to maintain this.”

There’s s an effort to create a whole new generation of fluent speakers starting at a young age beginning at Faith keepers schools and continue once students reach grade school. Seneca is offered as a second language credit in Gowanda and Salamanca up to advance level 5.

Through activities students are learning basic phrases about food and colors. In the class next doors students are learning basic words they would use in the community while doing things like shopping.

To preserve the language a written version is being cataloged.

Robbie Jimerson a graduate student in RIT’s computer science program and resident of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation is working on a project helping develop a user-friendly computer catalog allowing future generation to study and speak the language.

Jimerson said,”It’s an online dictionary. So you’ll be able to put in an English word and it will give you the Seneca translation for it.”

It’s being funded by a federal grant for the Seneca Language Revitalization Program.
He is working on this with a linguist based out of California.

“He’s done all the linguistic work to it, and I’ve just kind of put technology to what manual processes are done.”

There’s over 1409 pages of words that have been cataloged for a very complex language. Eventually there will be an app for the I pad and android.

Jimerson said, “anyway that I can help out in a small way, this is just where I see this fitting in, so hopefully it will help someone to learn or just expose them to the language.

Yallup said, “the main portion of our culture is language and if we don’t have language, we really don’t a have a culture. We can’t carry on our ceremonies, we can’t carry on daily living without our language.”

Kennedy said, “we had a generation where we were taught not to teach our language and forget it. But now they know the language, they will teach our children which I think is very good. And the language will continue hopefully. ”

Adrian John said, “our family stories are there, our ancestors are there, we talk about history 200 years – that wasn’t that long ago to us.”