Nebraska Omaha Tribe Working To Save Endangered Language, Culture

Members of the Omaha Tribe at a language conference in Macy, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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August 3, 2018 - 6:45am

A spark has been rekindled on the Omaha Indian reservation in northeast Nebraska, where members of the Ponca tribe are doing what they can to save their endangered language. With only a handful of fluent speakers still around, tribal elders say it falls on teaching the next generation to keep it alive. The effort is led by a woman who's 93, a tribal elder known as “Grandma Hawatay.”  


Her English name is Winona Caramony, but everyone calls her “grandma.” She’s the oldest living member of the Omaha tribe, about 7,000 strong. She still teaches the Umo ho language every day to children in the Omaha Nation Head Start program in Macy.

“This year we started with the four-year-olds and those are the very little ones,” Caramony said. “You’d be surprised how fast they learn. We had one little boy that can even count now up to ten.”   

Omaha Tribe elder Winona Caramony in Macy, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

It’s a race against time for a language that used to thrive in Nebraska, but has slowly slipped away over the decades. Only about 150 members can understand or speak parts of the language. Just a handful of elders in the tribe are still fluent in Umo ho.

“I always tell them to learn as much of the language as they can, because the white man says if we lose our language, we’re no longer a tribe, we’re just like anybody else,” Caramony said. “So learn all you can and don’t lose it.”    

Vanessa Hamilton is a member of the Omaha Tribe and is attending a week-long language conference at Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy. It’s the second year of the conference, part of an effort to rally the tribe to revitalize the language.

“Language ties everything together, it ties your identity to you,” Hamilton said. “Without your identity, who are you?”    

She says the future of the language is in tribal households. Parents have to speak Umo ho to their kids if there’s any hope to keep it going. She says little by little, home by home, the tribal language is coming alive again, but it’s going to take some time and patience.  

“When my son was little, I would say simple commands to him in Umo ho, you know, ‘Let’s go, put your shoes on, let’s go eat’, you know, that kind of thing,” she said. “Now, with my grandson, who’s 18 months old, I’m getting a little farther with it. I’m teaching him parts of the body and that kind of thing, the simple commands, and hopefully I can teach him Umo ho as he grows up. The more I learn, the more I can pass on to my son and grandson.”   

Vanessa Hamilton, a member of the Omaha tribe who's teaching her grandson the language. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Carlton LeCount is a division head of Native American Studies at the college and is a member of the Omaha Tribe. The school is offering more opportunities for students to learn the native language, including immersive classes that help students understand difficult concepts.

“The future is not written in stone. We have the ability to make it how we want it to be if we put the energy and the time and the focus into it,” LeCount said. “The language, it’s like a fire. As long as it’s still going, as long as there’s a coal or an ember left, that language is still alive.”   

Wynema Morris is an Omaha Tribe elder and helps teach the language at the college. She says it’s critical for the tribe to take the potential loss of the Oma ha language seriously.

Classrooms at an Omaha language conference in Macy, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“If you lose your language, then how can you claim to be Omaha, what make you different?” Morris said. “The way I look at it, you can have your histories, you can have your stories, but if you don’t have that language, how important is it and how unique are you?  

“I know we’re moving in the right direction,” she said. “The hope is that I hope that it gains some momentum.” 

For Winona Carmony, 93, “Grandma Hawatay” to everyone else, teaching the Umo ho language is what she does, and that won’t change anytime soon. 

“I give a lot of hugs, they hug me. They give a lot of fives,” she said. “Every day it’s that way and I’m there to teach them a little something of our language.”

It’s a lesson that could save a proud nation that’s doing what it can to keep an important part of its culture and past alive.  

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