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Native American Youth Language Fair has record attendance

photo courtesy of Sam Noble Museum of Natural History website

Dr. Mary Linn is the assistant curator for Native Languages at theSam Noble Museum of Natural Historyin Norman, Oklahoma.  This past week the 11th annual Native American Youth Language Fair took place at the Sam Noble Museum.

Dr. Mary Linn has been one of the driving forces behind the Native Youth Language Fair and remembers those early years. “I never dreamed, well I dreamed, I really wanted... I could envision a day when there was so many kids and that they were really using their languages in so many new and creative ways.

"That’s what I wanted.  But at first it was hard to envision that there would be that kind of enthusiasm with the younger kids because it did take a while for people, for younger kids to really feel comfortable I think.  So when I first started working in Oklahoma in the early 1990's, the language teachers… that was they're biggest concern, that the children did not want to learn the language. They felt that there wasn't the interest with the youth.  I don't think that’s the problem at all, it’s like this big snowball rolling down the hill and it’s so big now I don't think it can be stopped.  And it’s because of the children, it’s because of the youth.  If they want to learn the language they are going to learn it, they're going to find ways to learn it. So I'm really...enthused.  And as I said I could dream about it but I think that it’s surpassed my dreams.”

With an all-time high of 921 registered students coming to the Language Fair, that came out to 446 live performance or submissions of posters, books, comic book, poetry and essays, all using native language, which all had to be viewed either prior to the Fair or at the Fair.  Dr. Linn, although busy with the running of the Fair, did witness some unforgettable moments.   Linn said laughingly, “You know I'm running back and forth, but let me give a couple of ones that I remember.  For one thing, the poetry this year expanded.  Not by huge leaps and bounds, but we had representatives in each age category that turned in written poetry that also got up and spoke. And poetry is often seen as being too hard or somehow too nerdy but I think poetry works really really well with native languages and native language learners. So I was really proud of the kids that got up and recited their poetry and I thought they did a beautiful job.  The cartoons and comic books was our new category and that was really fun.  We had some really fun comic books that were just really hilarious, what you'd expect high school kids thinking about during the day but of course with that native sense of humor that  you can't get anywhere else, right?  And, uh, one of our young judges, Adam Young Bear, was really wonderful.  He made a little comic book thank you to put in with every single one of the students that submitted a cartoon or comic book this year. So that was really special, and I think that category for its inauguration year went really well, I thought that was really fun.” Some comic book style super Indian heroes also made it to the page. Linn said tongue-in-cheek, “Uh… I think we have a couple of super Indian heroes coming into play now and I think we can all rest assured and sleep more safely in our homes now.”

The “Song with Native Language” category also left its mark in her memory.  “We also had a couple of new groups, the Sequoyah HighSchool choir came and they did a really funny retro 1970's presentation in 1970's dress that was really fun.  However, in that category, it looks likeChickasaw Nation’sis the program to beat.  They won 1st place again but it was a really fun category.  This was the large group, 9th through 12th, and there were so many kids we could barely get them all on the stage.”

Some Native languages are now available on your mobile device and contrary to the stereotype of the obnoxious texting teen, Dr. Linn says it’s a good thing. “The more places they can use the language during the day the better.  So if they want to communicate by texting and they can communicate by texting in their language, that’s great.  It opens up a new place for them to use and practice their language.   In keeping up with the latest trends, next year’s fair will have a new category. “Next year for the 2014 Fair we're going to have the National Museum of the American Indian(NMAI), it has a traveling exhibit of American Indian skateboard art and skateboarders and it’s going to coincide with the Fair and we're going to have a special Native art category for skateboard art with language in it.  So hopefully we'll get some kids that usually may not participate because they may not feel they are the right kind of artist but they're decorating their skateboards and if they want to use language in that, then they have another place that they can use their language. And another thing we're trying to do for that category is get skateboard shops around here to donate skateboards for the prizes for that.”  Some Native Americans felt that native language on skateboards might be pushing the bounds of good taste, but Dr. Linn felt otherwise. “A couple of years ago there was more resistance by some elders to use language in tag art or in those kinds of new ways but I think that's really going away.  Elders really see that the enthusiasm for use of the language is infectious and it really can't and shouldn't be stopped. And that if children want to use the language in whatever way that's respectful and tag art, of course, and skateboard art, can be very respectful as well.  Then we should let them do it.”

click below to see Caddo school girls in their native dress singing,  video courtesy of Jeri RedCorn.

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