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A Virginia Family Works To Retain A Nearly-Forgotten Language

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Josh and Zach McCoy at their home in Fairfax County.
Jessica Gould
Josh and Zach McCoy at their home in Fairfax County.

On a suburban street in Fairfax County, a father is playing catch with his sons. It's a quintessentially American scene... with a distinctly Native American sound.

For the past four years, Tim McCoy, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution, has been teaching his children Myaamia, the language of the Myaami Tribe of Oklahoma. McCoy's ancestors were members of the Myaami tribe. But, growing up, he says he never heard much about his family's heritage because no one had the words to describe it.

"The last 'first language' speaker of Myaamia had died," he says. And there was no one who knew Myaamia. No one even knew if there were any records of Myaamia."

In fact, languages across the globe are disappearing all the time.

Joshua Bell, with the Recovering Voices program at the Smithsonian Institution, says 50 to 70 percent of the world's languages will probably fade away over the next 80 years or so. He says at that rate, one language disappears every 14 days. Native American languages are especially at risk.

"Eighty-nine percent of indigenous languages are becoming dormant and are at risk of no longer being used," he says.

And Bell says that's worrisome, because when a language goes, a group's history, culture or traditions often goes with it.

"It's the equivalent of taking Shakespeare's corpus out of the libraries and destroying it," he says.

For years, it seemed that might happen to Myaamia. But it didn't.

Saving a language before it's too late

"The actual research began around 1988 with a gentleman named David Costa who was in graduate school at the University of California Berkeley," says Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Ohio.

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.

"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," he says.

Now there are websites, talking dictionaries, even iPhone applications in the works to help parents teach Myaami words and traditions in their homes. McCoy says similar things are happening in tribes across the country.

"Linguists like to call languages like ours extinct," he says. "But as long as there's documentation out there. As long as there's a community that's interested in that, a language is not extinct. It's just sleeping. It's just waiting for its voice."

So, every day, McCoy, his wife, and his two sons sing Myaami songs. Then they recite a traditional poem. Even the dog answers Myaamia commands. McCoy says he just wants his children to have the chance to connect with their culture.

"My wife has German background," he says. "My own family has Scotch-Irish background, Italian background. But as we like to say, when they get older, and they want to know about their Scotch-Irish background, 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 alive, where will they go?"

Meanwhile, Zach McCoy, who's 10, says carrying on Myaami traditions makes him feel special.

"It's really cool," he says. "Because you feel different every day."

But McCoy says his family is actually a lot like other families in their neighborhood, and throughout the region.

"There's a lot of bilingualism and trilingualism in the Washington, D.C. area," he says. "And many of them speak a language from Africa or a Central American language. We just happen to speak a Native American language."

[Music: "Talk" by The Angry String Orchestra from The String Quartet Tribute to Coldplay, Volume 02]

Photos: Native Language: Myaamia

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