Diversity in Academe 2013

Comanche Nation College Tries to Rescue a Lost Tribal Language

Brandi Simons for the Chronicle

Kam Killsfirst, a student at Comanche Nation College and at Cameron U., has taken four semesters of Comanche-language studies.
June 09, 2013

A two-year tribal college in Lawton, Okla., is using technology to reinvigorate the Comanche language before it dies out.

Two faculty members from Comanche Nation College and Texas Tech University worked with tribal elders to create a digital archive of what's left of the language. Only about 25 people nationwide speak Comanche, down from about 15,000 in the late 1800s, they estimate.

"Every time an elder dies, one more of our speakers is gone," says Gordon Tahquechi, a 23-year-old Comanche who took two semesters of the language at Comanche Nation, using materials gathered by the researchers. Mr. Tahquechi, who learned a smattering of words from his Comanche grandmother, says he loved hearing the language spoken at powwows and at church. "I wanted to do something in my lifetime to keep the language alive," he says.

The recording project was supported by $198,000 in grants from the Administration for Native Americans, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Each of three Comanche speakers—all women in their 60s and 70s—was handed a script in English, which she translated into spoken Comanche as the project director recorded her. The resulting 42 modules require students to match the audio of a sentence spoken in Comanche with a corresponding picture or photograph.

For more advanced students, the sentences became more elaborate. A sentence might describe a boy ducking under a fence and running across the prairie to find his older brother fishing and tell him his mother said that supper was ready.

Comanche Nation College, which was established in 2002 in Lawton, the capital of the Comanche Nation, has 164 students, 116 of whom are American Indian. Of those, 67 are Comanche.

The curriculum covers tribal history, tradition, language, and culture. It offers associate degrees in majors like American Indian studies, linguistics, math, and English, along with work-force certificates in fields like medical coding and billing.

The college has a collaborative transfer agreement with nearby Cameron University, a four-year institution. It expects to enroll about a dozen students in introductory Comanche in the fall. Typically only a few advance enough to take a fourth semester. The language is mostly oral, so there are few textbooks or written materials to draw upon.

Recruiting students is an even bigger challenge.

"Part of the battle is getting young people to say, it's worth my time to study Comanche," says Jeffrey P. Williams, a professor of anthropology at Texas Tech who worked on the language project with its director, Todd McDaniels, an assistant professor of linguistics at Comanche Nation.

"Pragmatically speaking, a lot of them are saying, 'Knowing Comanche isn't going to help me get a job,'" adds Mr. Williams, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech.

But he hopes the language exposure will enhance their sense of identity and make them want to pass the language on to their children.

Generations of Comanche children were deprived of the chance to learn their language. Starting in the late 19th century, they were sent to boarding schools, where they were taught to assimilate into white culture and punished for speaking Comanche.

Juanita Pahdopony, dean of academic affairs at Comanche Nation, says her parents were products of the boarding schools, which existed through the 1970s. "My father was whipped for speaking the language, but he did it secretly and was a fluent speaker. My parents didn't want me learning the language, because they wanted me to be successful in the white man's world."

The number of speakers shrank further when, at the turn of the 20th century, the Comanche, Apache, and Kiowa tribes lost their reservations in Oklahoma and were interspersed with non-Indians.

Consuelo G. Lopez, president of Comanche Nation College, says she looks forward to the day when Comanche is spoken as freely in the halls of her college as it is in the language lab. The lab is set up like an apartment, where students converse while setting a table or relaxing in a living room. On Thursday evenings, students and others interested in the language gather there to practice speaking.

Mr. Tahquechi, the student who first heard the language from his grandmother, says the learning that takes place there feels natural.

"A lot of Comanche families use this technique to try to teach their kids the language—when you have a meal, you have to ask what you want in Comanche," he says.

"One of the reasons I started this immersion club was that I was teaching students the language, but they had no place to use it," says Mr. McDaniels, who guesses he's about 1/64 Comanche.

From the moment they walk in, it's Comanche or hand gestures only. Utter a word in English, and you have to throw in a quarter. Three times and you're out—until next week's meeting.

The language, with its unusual word order and vowels that are nearly inaudible, is challenging.

"From an aesthetic point of view, I like the cadence of the language," Mr. McDaniels says. "When you get it just right, you sound very wise."

One of the college's most advanced students is 22-year-old Kam Killsfirst, who's one-quarter Comanche. He is earning an associate degree in linguistics from Comanche Nation while pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer science from Cameron. He is also working as a cultural-program assistant for the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, a federally recognized tribe in Apache, Okla.

His professor, Mr. McDaniels, says that when he interviews the tribe's elders, he doesn't pretend to be an expert in their language.

"People here are protective of the Comanche language," he says. "They aren't too crazy about white people coming in and learning it."

Mr. Williams, the Texas Tech professor, says he's encountered the same resistance in his language-preservation work.

"It's an ethical issue all linguists deal with," Mr. Williams says. "People have come in and recorded their songs and told their stories and published books and gotten jobs as a result. Many people are resentful and wonder what's in it for them."

That sensitivity was evident when The Chronicle called one of the enlisted speakers. Asked whether she felt it was important for more people to speak Comanche, Sandra Karty had only one thing to say. "I don't think it's important for more people to speak the language. It's important for our people to speak it."