*This is the first of three writings exploring how language defines culture and identity. A multi-generational family trip highlighted the history of institutional attempts to eradicate language. With persistence and practice, words and memories remain.
My grandfather, father, and I recently traveled from Madison, Wisconsin to Dallas, Texas for a cross-country journey. The excursion highlighted raw memories that had been buried and forgotten. My grandfather (Tom Balisle) was born in the small timber town of Alikchi whose namesake means “medicine man” in Choctaw. Tom was one of the last of this era and oral history.
The Forest Heritage Center and Museum partnered with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to interview my grandfather to document his legacy. Listening to Tom Balisle’s memories became a defining moment. Information is the power of understanding identity. My privilege provided opportunity amidst the stains of American’s history.
During the trip, my grandfather’s unique accent sharply corrected my pronunciation of the word “Alikchi” [a-lik-chih]. After numerous China excursions for art exhibits over the last few years, the importance of linguistics haunted me. Subtle audible variations make contextual differences for this clumsy American speaker.
Arriving back in California, research for an accurate and thoughtful Choctaw dictionary began. Serendipitously, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma just released the New Choctaw Dictionary after 14 years of work. Teresa Billy (Assistant Director of the Language Department) from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma website: “The significance of having a Choctaw dictionary at this time is we’ve had one that was created more than 100 years ago. We have a lot of new learners. Back in the 1820s, 30s, 40s when the original previous dictionary was being developed people were already fluent speakers…Fast forward to today’s time, and we have a lot of people who are learning the language who are not fluent speakers. So they needed a tool and aid to help them to find words.”
Respectfully, I just completed reading 444 pages of the New Choctaw Dictionary. The book includes a Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief message, a historical introduction, and a basic grammar overview. In addition, the dictionary has two listing sections featuring Choctaw to English and English to Choctaw words.
Achvffa means one in Choctaw. Understanding’s one history should not be a right for a selected few. Here’s to more words mixed with honest attempts at comprehension. I’m willing- are you?