The origin of the word "Texas" comes from the Caddo word "tay-sha" which means "friend." Today, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma is in a race against time to save what's left of their critically endangered language.
The ground is colored red at the Caddo Nation dance grounds where Leonard Kionute sings a traditional Caddo song.
"Hayah'nah weneko, Hayah'nah weneko," he chants. Kionute says the song is an ode to all things on earth.
He's the cultural director for the Caddo Nation’s child care program. He’s tasked with passing on the culture and language to new generations of Caddo.
It's a task that's absolutely crucial for the Caddo.
“We're talking about having fewer numbers that are fluent speakers, it's gonna be really tough," Kionute said. "But that's what we're here for."
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens of the Caddo Nation took part in a community-wide survey for people who could speak the language fluently. They found seven people could speak the language, also known as Hasinai.
But during the pandemic, the tribe found that five of the seven fluent speakers had died.
"That was extremely devastating for us," said Alaina Tahlate, the language revitalizationist for the Caddo Nation's language preservation program. "It brought our count to two speakers."
The program is part of a decades-long effort to preserve the language. Tahlate was officially hired by last summer by the tribe to lead the program. Now, she's working with one of the last fluent speakers — a 93-year-old elder named EJ — to document, preserve and pass along knowledge of the language.
The Caddo have strong roots in Texas. In fact, historians have traced the word "Texas" to the Caddo word "tay-sha," which means friend.
Today the Caddo largely reside in Binger, Oklahoma, far from their ancestral lands. The Caddo are native to East Texas and parts of what’s now Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. About 7,000 people are enrolled in the Caddo Nation today. Most live in and around Southwest Oklahoma.
And despite hundreds of years of colonization, the tribe continues to preserve its culture, including its language.
“Our language helps us to be able to access our history and our knowledge of who we are as people and one of the aspects of our culture that is uniquely ours,” Tahlate said.
Like many Native American tribes, the Caddo lost much of their language and culture as a result of violent federal policies that destroyed many aspects of tribal culture. Those policies included boarding schools where Native children were discouraged from speaking their Indigenous language.
Between disease and attacks by settlers and other tribes the Caddo were reduced to a few hundred people in the 1800s, according to Phil Cross, one of the foremost historians of the tribe.
Cross is working on a book that traces the tribe’s displacement from their homelands up to their resettlement in southwest Oklahoma. Before colonization, he said, the number of Caddo people was at least in the tens of thousands.
“We had our language and, you know, a hierarchy of people," he said. "That's how we existed. Farming, there was some hunter-gathering and often around a mound that was for [ceremonies] and served too, as burial platforms."
Cross documented 10 different relocations of Caddo people since the early 1600s. He’s also done extensive research on the Caddo’s time on a reservation in North Texas — once known as the Brazos Reservation in present-day Young County.
It was a dangerous time for the tribe because of hostile white settlers, Cross said. The Caddo also shared the reservation with other tribes including the Wichita, Tonkawa and Comanche.
“When that reservation was established, because it was so dangerous, they felt we were gonna get wiped out,” Cross said.
After threats from a violent mob of white frontiersmen, a federal agent by the name of Robert Simpson Neighbors evacuated the Caddo and other tribes from the reservation to their present-day home near Binger, Oklahoma.
When Neighbors returned to Texas after the successful evacuation, he was shot and killed by a white man. Some Caddo still visit Neighbors’ grave to this day to honor him for saving their tribe, including Tahlate and her family.
In the years since the tribe’s relocation, the Caddo have worked hard to preserve what's left of their culture.
In nearby Hinton, Oklahoma, the Caddo Nation bought a property next to a creek and a forest of evergreen trees. That's where the tribe hopes to teach the next generation of Caddo about the culture and language they've worked so hard to preserve.
Chairman Bobby Gonzalez, the tribe's elected leader, says the Caddo have been working on bringing back the language for decades.
“We are in this together," Gonzalez said. "We are doing everything we can to provide all the tools and the resources tuned to our language program, our culture programs, our traditions, all the programs that we have, because it's all tied together, one way or the other.”
Gonzalez remembers learning Caddo at an early age from his elders.
“Hok-to-de ani-Bo-is-a-bola-buh-nuh' – Once upon a time, I was a little boy," Gonzalez recalls. "I heard them say that — ‘daconah hah-see-eh-nay’ – 'Talk Caddo. We're going to talk Caddo — listen to us, pay attention to us, one of these days, we may not be here.'”
Gonzalez says while the Caddo language may not be spoken widely as it once was, the tribe hopes to save what it can.
And through the Caddo Nation’s efforts, he says the culture — and language — will live on.
“I think the most important thing is that we're still alive,” Gonzalez said. "We're alive and well. We're an ancient tribe, and we're going to be here time immemorial."
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