Transcripts

A Virginia Family Works To Retain A Nearly-Forgotten Language

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
We head across the Potomac now for a story about a rare language. Northern Virginia resident Tim McCoy always knew his ancestors had been part of the Myaami tribe of Oklahoma. But he didn't know a lot about their traditions. That's because many years ago, the last speaker of Myaamia died. Now, McCoy is working with fellow members of the Myaami tribe to revive the language. Jessica Gould visited the McCoy family to hear what it's like to bring a language back from the brink.

MS. JESSICA GOULD

00:00:32
On a suburban street in Fairfax county, a father is playing catch with his sons. It is a quintessentially American scene with a distinctly Native American sound.

MS. JESSICA GOULD

00:00:47
For the past four years, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution has been teaching his children Myaamia, the language of the Myaami tribe of Oklahoma.

MR. TIM MCCOY

00:00:56
My name is Tim McCoy, or I could say (speaks foreign language) .

GOULD

00:01:00
McCoy's ancestors were Myaami tribe members, but growing up, he says, he never heard much about his families heritage because no one had the words to describe it.

MCCOY

00:01:11
The last first language speaker of Myaami had died and there was no one who knew Myaami. No one even knew if there were any records of Myaami.

GOULD

00:01:19
In fact, languages across the globe are disappearing all the time. Joshua Bell is part of the recovering voices program at the Smithsonian. And he says 50 to 75 percent of the worlds languages will probably fade away over the next 80 years or so.

MR. JOSHUA BELL

00:01:35
And at that rate, it's about one language disappears every 14 days.

GOULD

00:01:40
Native American languages are especially at risk.

BELL

00:01:43
Eighty-nine percent of all these languages are in danger of becoming dormant and no longer used.

GOULD

00:01:49
And Bell says, that's worrisome because when a language goes, a groups history, culture and traditions often go with it.

BELL

00:01:57
When you lose that, it's the equivalent of taking Shakespeare's corpus out of all the libraries.

GOULD

00:02:04
For years, it seemed that might happen to Myaamia, but it didn't. Daryl Baldwin is director of the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Ohio.

MR. DARYL BALDWIN

00:02:14
The actual research into the language began around 1988 with a gentleman by the name of David Costa who was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.

GOULD

00:02:23
Baldwin says, Costa reviewed centuries of documents in order to piece together the language. Then the tribe partnered with Miami University to promote its culture through scholarships and summer camps.

BALDWIN

00:02:35
But it's a healing process for this community to get back a sense of who they are and to be able to value and honor their ancestors.

GOULD

00:02:43
Now, they are websites, talking dictionaries, even iPhone applications to help parents teach Myaami words and traditions in their homes. And Tim McCoy says similar things are happening tribes across the country.

MCCOY

00:02:56
Linguists like to call languages like our extinct. And as long as there's documentation out there and as long as there's a community that's interested in that, a language is never really extinct, it's just sleeping, it's just waiting for its voice.

GOULD

00:03:10
So every day, McCoy, his wife and his two sons, sing songs in Myaamia.

GOULD

00:03:21
Then they say a traditional poem.

GOULD

00:03:26
Even the dog answers Myaamia commands.

GOULD

00:03:32
McCoy says, he just wants his children to have the chance to connect with their culture.

MCCOY

00:03:37
Our kids are obviously multi-ethnic, you know. My wife has German background. My own family has Scotch-Irish background, Italian background. But as we like to say, when they get older, if they decide they want to know about their Scotch history, they can go to Scotland. If they want to know about their German history, they can go to Germany. If we don't keep Myaami culture and Myaamia as a language alive, where will they be able to go?

GOULD

00:04:04
And Zach McCoy, who's 10, says carrying on Myaami traditions makes him feel special.

MR. ZACH MCCOY

00:04:10
It's really cool because you feel different every day.

GOULD

00:04:14
But Tim McCoy says, his family is actually a lot like other families in the neighborhood and throughout the region.

MCCOY

00:04:21
There's a lot of bilingualism and trilingualism in the Washington, D.C. area. Many of them speak a language from Africa or Central America language. We just happen to speak a Native-American language.

GOULD

00:04:33
And one day, he hopes, that won't be rare at all. I'm Jessica Gould.

SHEIR

00:04:42
You can learn more about the Myaamia Project at Miami University and the recovering voices program at the Smithsonian on our website metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:05:05
After the break, a Capitol Hill barber with a one of a kind cliental.

MR. JOE QUATRONE

00:05:11
I had a pleasure to meet the President, the Prime Minister of Italy in the shop. And also I had Vice President Ford, Al Gore.

SHEIR

00:05:21
That and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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