The Pursuit of Indigenous Language Preservation

By Neena Arndt

Black and white photo of a woman looking directly into the camera. She had long dark hair and wears a sparkly necklace and earrings and a dark shirt.

In a conversation with Goodman’s Resident Dramaturg Neena Arndt, classical vocalist and visual artist Jennifer Stevens, who is of Oneida and Lakota descent, talks about her artistry, her family and her grandmother’s commitment to preserving the Oneida language.

Neena Arndt: Tell me about your yourself and your career.  

Jennifer Stevens: I started studying classical voice when I was 17 and I’m turning 50 this year. So, it’s been quite a journey, studying privately and in college, and also over time I discovered that studying privately, and even overseas like in Italy and Austria, Spain and Switzerland were beneficial for me. I discovered when I trained privately and internationally that it was a better fit for me than college. I didn’t want to become a voice teacher, which, that’s usually the case.  

I composed at 12, and then in high school I started to write poetry and then I combined the two. And then I was asked to combine my culture with my compositional training and that’s when things started shifting for me. I’m used to singing classical repertoire in various languages, and I discovered that there’s beauty in my own, which is the Oneida language. I started out in that, and in the past 5 years, the Lakota language too. My dad’s Oneida and my mother’s Lakota. I feel like fusing classical music and Native American language has been kind of a challenge because I want to be as authentic to both as possible.  

NA: Tell me about your ancestry and where your family comes from. 

JS: My mother is from Pine Ridge, SD, so she’s Oglala and Rosebud and Lower Brule, but she also has some French and some German, and some Irish, and we think Spanish as well.  My mom is enrolled in Pine Ridge in through the Oglala nation in South Dakota. And my dad is Oneida, he’s enrolled through the Oneida nation in Wisconsin, as I am. My grandmother is Maria Hinton. She didn’t start her language journey until she was 69. She went to school, graduated from college. She was always bilingual, she spoke Oneida and English, but she graduated from college at University of Wisconsin—Green Bay and that was the beginning of her true career. And she ended up co-authoring a dictionary of 35,000 words with her brother, Amos Christjohn. After he passed, she continued that journey because she noticed that individuals would utilize the dictionary, but they weren’t pronouncing the words properly. And so, she recorded 35,000 words and she completed that at 100 years old. My grandma is a huge influence on me, not just because of her goals in language and cultural preservation, but also, she was a pioneering spirit and one of my pillars of strength. 

NA: So, she spoke Oneida her whole life. Was that common for people of her generation?  

JS: Yes. She was born in 1910 and had to go to boarding schools. She went to various ones, and she didn’t like to talk about her experiences, but she attended, and she was not allowed to speak her language, but she somehow managed to remember her language. In fact, her Oneida name is “She Remembers.” To be in that generation where you’re not allowed to speak your language—it was against the law at that time in the United States to practice your Native American religious beliefs and your language. They were being Americanized. My grandmother somehow miraculously remembered 35,000 words and more, and they did the first Oneida/English dictionary in history.  

It’s a big influence on me. It helps me to recognize who I am in a modern-day world. I’m still Indigenous, but I’m also a classical musician. That is not typical of a Native American woman. But that’s who I am. Combining the two is a beautiful thing. 

NA: How did she go about compiling this dictionary? Did she simply write down the words she knew? 

JS: Yes, and then she went to school and became a linguist and she and her brother developed curriculum, which was very influential in our tribe because now we have a language program. Our school is shaped like a turtle, and it teaches our Oneida members about our language and our culture. So, she was one of the founders, and so was my father. He was the one that hired all the architects for the school. They call it the Turtle School, but it’s the Oneida Elementary School.  

NA: How would you describe the state of the Oneida language now? 

JS: We have lost a lot of what we call our first generational speakers. We probably can count on our hands how many Oneida fluent speakers there are left, unfortunately. But due to the contribution that my uncle and grandmother had, we have a language department, we have language in our schools, so the Oneida language has become more a part of our lives. We don’t have a lot of fluent speakers, but it’s a ripple. Maybe it’s a slow ripple. But we do have what we call second generational speakers, and we probably have maybe five in our community. I have niece that went to school to get a Masters’ degree to be a linguist, and she’s also pursuing language preservation as well. Her name is Jasmine Jimerson. We do have a lot of members speaking more of the Oneida language in our community than we had prior to my uncle and grandma’s research and contribution. So, it’s big for us. 

Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg at Goodman Theatre. 

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