A Way with Words

As the last fluent speaker of the Quapaw language and the granddaughter of the tribe’s last chief, Ardina Moore knows she can’t be silent

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Have you eaten your black-eyed peas?” Ardina Moore poses the question to family members celebrating the new year with her at a Mexican restaurant in Tulsa, Okla. It’s an innocuous question, but when voiced by Moore—an elder of the Quapaw Indian tribe, granddaughter of the tribe’s last chief and the only remaining fluent speaker of its language—the question takes on cultural significance beyond a lighthearted reference to the tradition of eating legumes to bring prosperity. “Ho-wa jee-ye opa-nee-ga insta-ka-sha?” she asks. By making the query in the Quapaw language rather than in English, Moore is practicing what she’s devoted decades to teaching— O-gah-pah i-ya, or “speaking Quapaw.” Happily, her efforts are rewarded when her grandson Joseph Byrd answers “U’-dah,” an affirmative that literally means “good.”

For Moore, who turned 83 in December, hearing her 29-year-old grandson answer her question in Quapaw was very u’-dah, a word she heard often around the dinner table in the 1930s on her grandparents Minnie and Victor Griffin’s farm at Devil’s Promenade in northeast Oklahoma. She holds Quapaw close to her heart as the language of her tribe, as well as an emotional and familial link to her childhood in a close-knit Native American community. Moore is Ma-shru-ghe-ta—Eagle Feather that Rises—the oldest grandchild of the tribe’s last chief. Victor Griffin, who led the Quapaw from 1929 until his death in 1957, instilled in his granddaughter a respect for education, as well as an appreciation for tribal customs and language.

Moore grew up speaking English and Quapaw, both languages as natural to her as breathing. She says she took her ability to speak Quapaw for granted, not fully realizing until about age 50 that the Quapaw language could be lost. In 1978, after spending 11 years in Montana, she returned to Oklahoma with her husband and children to discover that there were only a few fluent speakers of Quapaw remaining. One by one they have died, with each death pushing her closer to a linguistic isolation she could never have imagined in the days she spent blithely riding her Shetland pony bareback on her grandparents’ farm and playing with a friend who lived down the road. That friend, Native American composer Louis Ballard, the next-to-last speaker of the language, died in 2007. Moore recalls the two of them attending the Devil’s Promenade elementary school, whispering in Quapaw to each other in the cafeteria and on the playground, careful to never speak their native tongue within earshot of the non-Indian, English-speaking teachers. As adults, the friends kept in touch by phone, always speaking the language of their shared heritage.

Now, as the last person for whom conversing in Quapaw was once part of everyday life, Moore faces the task of keeping an entire language from fading away. She awakens in her Miami, Okla., home each day aware that without continuation of her efforts, the language of the Quapaw—the tribe from which Arkansas got its name—could someday exist only in musty linguistic archives. But she’s encouraged that her grandchildren and a few others under her tutelage are grasping the rudiments of the language and can converse in ordinary situations such as a family meal. Her feelings are writ large on a wall of the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock’s permanent We Walk in Two Worlds display about the Indians native to Arkansas: “I teach the Quapaw language because I am the last speaker. My students will be the next speakers; this is the revival of our language.” She wants younger members of the tribe to share her sense of urgency about keeping the language living and relevant. “They don’t realize that it’s coming to the end of the road,” she says of the possibility that the Quapaw language could perish as 125 of the more than 300 Native American languages have done upon the demise of their last speakers. “It’s very sad for me. It breaks my heart.”

Moore wishes she had realized earlier in her life the exigency of cultivating in her two sons and two daughters the simultaneous bilingualism she’s always known. Regrettably, she says, teaching school full time (high-school health/physical education and later Indian history and genealogy at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College) while caring for her family left her little time to teach her children more than a few words and their Indian names. “I wish I had started with my own children because that’s the way I learned it,” she says, “but it never occurred to me to try to teach them until I realized the language was being lost. I’ve done better with my grandchildren.”

Grandson Joseph Byrd and his 24-year-old sister, Candice Byrd, have become skilled enough in Quapaw to carry on casual conversation. “I’m not fluent by any means,” Joseph says, “but I can definitely understand what my grandmother’s saying whenever she speaks to me in Quapaw. Obviously, we have to go at a much slower pace.” Candice says she also understands Moore when she speaks Quapaw, although she’s not always able to quickly answer in kind. At the restaurant on New Year’s Day, she knew what her grandmother had asked, as well as the answer, although Joseph spoke up first. Her brother had the benefit of an immersive language experience when he lived with Moore for three years while working at the Downstream Casino in Quapaw. He became proficient enough in speaking Quapaw for Moore to entrust him with teaching the beginning class of her language series at the Quapaw Tribal Museum in Quapaw, Okla.

When you’re learning the Quapaw language, you’re actually getting a cultural and historical lesson,” Joseph says. “With every word my grandmother teaches me, she’s also teaching a story.” For example, the tribe’s name, O-gah-pah, means “downstream people” and distinguishes the Quapaw tribe from a second in its Siouan language group, the Omaha or “upstream people.” Stories such as those taught by Moore drive language development, which is why scholars versed in linguistics say language represents a culture’s body of knowledge. Therefore, the “language death” that occurs when there are no speakers left is more than a loss of words. “If the language dies, the culture dies,” says Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “Words are not just words, but concepts.”

Moore has spent the last dozen years or so warding off language death by building the tribe’s Quapaw program, which now comprises two eight-week series of classes each year at the Quapaw Tribal Museum. She schools her adult students in words and phrases for numbers, family members, colors, animals, foods and physical features. She has hopes that Joseph or some of her more accomplished students will carry on the classes someday, plus keep the language alive by speaking Quapaw among themselves and with others. To that end, Candice supports Moore’s efforts by creating videos of her teaching the language. So far, there are nine videos covering the basics, and Candice plans to shoot others this year to focus on Quapaw storytelling and advanced conversation skills. She has learned from her grandmother the significance of the language to the tribe’s future. She also shares Moore’s sense of urgency. “Because of my grandmother’s age,” Candice says, “I’m aware that time is very precious.”

The video series, combined with her other efforts, should keep the Quapaw language from being lost, Moore says. She has no plans, however, to pass the torch anytime soon. “My goal is to teach as long as I’m physically able,” she says. “I think that’s why God has left me here this long. I teach the language, and I’m the only person left who can do that. I must and will do that work. It’s my legacy.”

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