Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version



Paper presented at the Meeting of the Mid-America Linguistics Conference (Cedar Falls, IA, October 1989.


A native language renewal program at the Macy, Nebraska Public School is described that is designed to preserve Omaha, a native American Indian language that is only a generation away from extinction. At the time of this research, only about 100 fluent Omaha speakers lived on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. The language and culture program, instituted in 1970, has employed various instruction techniques and methodologies, including immersion, memorization of words and phrases, and publication of student-authored stories in English and Omaha. The program has suffered from a lack of consistency; frequent changes in funding, personnel, and curriculum; and a lack of attention to syntax, morphology, and conversational competence. Although the program has not been successful in preserving Omaha as a living spoken language,it has helped to improve tribal solidarity and pride. Nearly every child knows at least some Omaha words and phrases, and the classes have provided satisfaction and a sense of pride for children and elders. In addition, many teachers at the school believe that the program has led to better attitudes and academic performance for at least some students. The program may enhance Omaha cultural survival and enrich the educational experience of the children.

Umaha (Omaha) is a dying language. Like many other Native American languages, including several of its Siouan relatives, Omaha is in all likelihood just one generation away from extinction. A dramatic decline in number of speakers and contexts of use has occurred in just the past two or three generations. While exact figures are not available, there appear to be about 100 fluent speakers on the Omaha Reservation, in northeastern Nebraska, and a few more scattered in Omaha, Lincoln, andd other cities. All of the fluent speakers are elderly. Many middle-aged Omaha Tribe members know a few words of Omaha, but younger adults generally do not, and tests of kindergardeners entering school in Macy, Nebraska,the most solidly Omaha town on the Omaha reservation, indicate virtually no knowledge of the language among young children. The woman I sat next to at a Senior Center lunch in Macy a few days ago told a typical story. Her parents spoke almost no Englioh, and she herself "couldn't even say yes or no" until she was sent to school at the age of eight. She is fluent in English but prefers Omaha. Her daughter understands and can speak Omaha, but is more comfortable in English.Her grandchildren, who are in their thirties, know no Omaha. Fourteen years ago Wallace Chafe reported that Omaha had "a thousand or more speakers, some of whom may still be children" (1970:20), but even at that time this figure must have included a large number of non-fluent or semi-fluent speakers.

However, although most tribe members do not speak Omaha fluently, the language remains important to tribal coneciousness and is used ceremonially in speeches on public occasions such as feasts, funerals, Native American Church services, and the annual Powwow. Omaha is not obligatory on these occasions; some speeches are made in English, and often there is at least a summary or preview or both in English for the benefit of those who do not understand Omaha. Sometimes a speaker who is fluent in both Omaha and English will even repeat a whole speech in both languages. But Omaha is felt to be most appropriate if the speaker is able to use it. Knowledge of traditional names, kinship terms, and other vocabulary items is considered a crucial key to retention of cultural identity. Because of its cultural importance, some elders and others have become concerned enough about the impending loss of the language to institute an Omaha language renewal program in the Macy public school. This paper describes and evaluates the school's language preservation efforts, including both oral language classes and written projects.