The Last Living Speaker of Wichita

Doris McLemore, the last living speaker of the Native-American Wichita language, is recording it for posterity.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Our next guest hails from Anadarko, Oklahoma. That's about 60 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Now, according to Census data, about 42 percent of the population of Anadarko is Native American, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is located there. And so is the last fluent speaker of the Wichita tribal language. She is 80 years old. Her name is Doris McLemore, and she is a busy woman. She is working with a linguist to help record as much of the language as possible so it can be preserved for generations to come. And she joins us on the phone, now, from Oklahoma.

Hi, Doris. How are you?

Ms. DORIS McLEMORE (Last Fluent Speaker of The Wichita Tribal Language): I'm fine.

STEWART: So, Doris, I'd love to get a little information about where you grew up and how you grew up and where you went to elementary school and high school. Have you always been in Anadarko?

Ms. McLEMORE: Yes.

STEWART: And which side of your family is Native American?

Ms. McLEMORE: My grandparents. My mother was full-blood Wichita and she left me with my grandparents and my grandmother did not speak English. So ever since I've had a memory I could speak Wichita and English, and I can remember when everyone spoke Wichita.

STEWART: Do you remember when it started to go - the balance went the other way, where more people spoke English than Wichita?

Ms. McLEMORE: I don't know exactly, but it just - overtime, it just happened.

STEWART: How about around town? Were you able to go into a store and speak Wichita to somebody when you were a young girl?

Ms. McLEMORE: No. And when my grandmother shopped or anything, I would be with her and, you know, to tell her the prices and that's whenever she shopped.

STEWART: So, Doris, when was the last time you remember being able to have a conversation with someone who spoke Wichita fluently?

Ms. McLEMORE: Well, my mother died in '97, and she was 92, and we talked all the time.

STEWART: We're speaking with Doris McLemore. She is the last known fluent speaker of the Wichita tribal language.

Doris, were you able to teach anybody else the language to pass it on? Were people interested in learning it?

Ms. McLEMORE: Yes. We're having classes now with children.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McLEMORE: And we've been doing that now for, I don't know how many years - for two years.

STEWART: There was a time, though, when children were punished for speaking the language. Can you tell me about that?

Ms. McLEMORE: This was way back in my mother's time. And she was born in 1906. And it was during that time when they would take them, they went to Riverside Indian School and they'd take them in the fall and even though they didn't live that far away, they would leave them there until spring. And they weren't allowed to speak their language.

STEWART: Well, now, people want to make sure that the language is preserve and I know you're working really hard at that with some linguists. Can you explain to me what's you're doing and how is it - how does it work the way you work with the linguists to preserve the Wichita tribal language?

Ms. McLEMORE: Yes. I would say the word in English and then three times in Wichita. And I - when he comes in the summertime, he comes to my house and we work on stuff, he's got a lot of things that are in Wichita but he didn't have the translation, and so I've translated a lot of stuff for him. And he wanted every little word like hand and stuff like that, just everything.

STEWART: So may I ask you a couple of words so I can learn something today?

Ms. McLEMORE: Well, if you like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: What is the word for sun?

Ms. McLEMORE: Saakhir'a.

STEWART: Saakhir'a.

Ms. McLEMORE: Saakhir'a.

STEWART: What about the moon?

Ms. McLEMORE: It's - the moon is waah.

STEWART: What about happy?

Ms. McLEMORE: Happy?

STEWART: Yes.

Ms. McLEMORE: You know, there's a lot of things that don't have words. But, let's see, happy would be (speaking in foreign language).

STEWART: Well, I can't pronounce that back to you, Doris.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Do you have any favorite words that you're really particularly glad that would be remember - remembered and recorded forever?

Ms. McLEMORE: Well, there is one word that I've never forgotten and always thought it was a pretty word. And we use to have to pick them off of my grandmother's pumpkin. and it's a stink bug and they're called (Speaking in foreign language).

STEWART: That is a lot prettier than stink bug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McLEMORE: Yeah. It was (Speaking in foreign language). And then there's another word. I like the Whip-poor-will.

STEWART: Oh.

Ms. McLEMORE: And I'm always listening to hear the first one, and that's a pretty word. It's (Speaking in foreign language).

STEWART: That is beautiful.

Ms. McLEMORE: (Speaking in foreign language). And that's what the Whip-poor-will is saying. (Speaking in foreign language), if you ever hear one.

STEWART: Well, you've changed that for me forever. Two last questions for you. Doris, when you realized, gosh, I'm really the last fluent speaker of this language that I learned as a child, what went through your mind?

Ms. McLEMORE: You know, I'm just - I don't think about it. We're just doing what we can to, you know, preserve what, you know, what we can. And I just don't think about it.

STEWART: Well, do you ever think about this? It's your voice. You'll become the voice of the Wichita tribal language forever.

Ms. McLEMORE: Yes.

STEWART: It's you, ma'am.

Ms. McLEMORE: I know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McLEMORE: I'm on - I think we have five lessons, and it's my voice on those. And on other things, they'll be hearing me after I'm gone.

STEWART: So, Doris, how do I say thank you for doing that? How do I say thank you in Wichita?

Ms. McLEMORE: (Speaking in foreign language)

STEWART: Well, (Speaking in foreign language), Doris McLemore.

Ms. McLEMORE: Okay.

STEWART: This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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