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Still here: The Haliwa-Saponi fight to revive their language

May 3, 2019

How do you create a word for a toaster? For a filing cabinet? How do you rebuild a language that has been largely lost, while simultaneously updating it with words that never existed in the first place?

These questions drive Dr. Marvin “Marty” Richardson, project director for the Haliwa-Saponi Historic Legacy Project. The Haliwa-Saponi tribe is part of a nationwide movement to resurrect nearly dead languages such as Tutelo-Saponi, which Richardson teaches to a small group of tribal members in Hollister on Thursday nights.

“You have to have some things that are unique to your people in order to survive,” Richardson said. “That’s one of the things that’s important for us to have as a tribe and as a people—that we have our language, that we speak our language, that we teach our language.”

There are no fluent speakers left, but Richardson is perhaps as close as tribal members can get. While he learns the language himself and teaches what he knows to others, Richardson is also on a mission to rebuild what’s lost and update it for the 21st century.

“That’s something that helps to keep us together,” Richardson said. “That identifies us as the Haliwa-Saponi people.”

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Tutelo-Saponi is a branch of Siouan once spoken by American Indians in central and eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. As a trade language, Tutelo-Saponi was spoken by many tribes in the region including the Occaneechi around what is now Hillsborough, and the Haliwa-Saponi tribe in Halifax and Warren Counties.

Richardson said documents show that the Haliwa-Saponi tribe has been in the area since at least the 1720s. It now has about 4,000 enrolled members, mostly living around Hollister. They’re descended from the Nansemond, Saponi and Tuscarora tribes, which came together for safety from disease and warfare after the beginning of colonization.

“Of course, we know that we’ve been here for thousands of years,” he said. “A lot of our people live here, and we still own a lot of our land.”

Richardson considers the tribe to be partially federally recognized because it does receive some funding from the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, which funds their housing program.

Part of his job as director of the legacy program involves collecting oral and written histories in an effort to gain full federal recognition, which would open up more funding opportunities for ongoing language projects.

Matthew Richardson is a student of Marty Richardson. He said they’re related “somewhere down the line.” Richardson is one of several common last names among the Haliwa-Saponi tribe.

Matthew Richardson said he tries to immerse himself in the language as much as possible.

“Oftentimes after class I’ll sit down and basically have a conversation with myself about whatever, and see how long I can go until I can’t anymore, until I have to look at a dictionary,” he said. “The only person I can talk to really is Marty, because he’s been studying it for the longest.”

Like Marty Richardson, Matthew Richardson’s interest in language originated with a drum group—this one called Blue Moon. He apprenticed with Marty Richardson in 2010 and almost immediately began using the language in his songwriting.

“I like to write songs for people, to keep them alive so to speak,” Matthew Richardson said. “Then the group that I’m singing it with, they know what it means because they knew the person.”

Matthew Richardson carries a binder, overflowing with lessons, loose-leaf notes and scribbled vocabulary or song lyrics. He’s kept it ever since his apprenticeship with Marty Richardson in 2010, and it continues to grow. During a debate with his classmates about how to construct a word for ‘language,’ he flips through a dictionary. It’s a Siouan dictionary, but the roots and similar vocabulary can be used to construct words that have been lost.

“Maybe we can use a word for ‘tongue’?” he suggests, before scrawling possible translations into his binder.

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Marty Richardson is applying for a grant to hire a Siouan-specializing linguist to help update the Tutelo-Saponi language. With a background in Siouan languages, the linguist can help analyze roots and histories of phrases in order to rebuild what’s been lost.

Losing a language is not just the loss of words and phrases, or even the pervasive colloquialisms that permeate so much of daily conversation. Language comprises human stories, histories and existence itself. For the Haliwa-Saponi, Marty Richardson said, the ability to speak their native language also gives a sense of pride.

“We’ve lost a lot of the deep cultural meanings of our language,” he said. “So now it’s just a matter of knowing that our people, our ancestors spoke that language and that we can get that back and move forward.”

Melissa Silver Richardson, Marty Richardson’s wife, said language is an integral part of the culture itself. She began attending culture classes as a teen, where the history, dances, music and what was known of the language was shared.

“I probably still have my old notes from that class, probably 15 years ago,” she said, laughing. “It’s just people wanting to learn…and be able to say I speak my language, my native language.”

The sense of pride is a constant theme in conversations with anyone trying to learn Tutelo-Saponi. For Melissa Richardson, being able to greet her fellow tribal members in their native language was a success.

“Yipi:wo,” she said, demonstrating the word for ‘hello.’ She smiled proudly.

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Men and women of all ages performed their own individual dancing styles at the 29th annual N.C. State Powwow on April 6. Young children wore their regalia proudly, showing off the bright colors and stretching their hand-crafted shawls behind them. One little girl had the sun symbol from her favorite movie, “Tangled,” embroidered on the front of her regalia. A man walked toward the drum circles at the front of the room, countless deer hooves clacking around his ankles.

After the dancers’ grand entrance, Teanna Richardson, Junior Miss Haliwa-Saponi, introduced herself in her native language. Marty Richardson, the head judge for the powwow, smiled.

“To hear a 10-year-old kid or one of our princesses or someone else get up in front of thousands of people at our powwows, and say their name in our language and give a greeting in our language, that’s a triumph,” Marty Richardson said.

The emphasis on passing language to the next generation is everywhere at the powwow.

“It’s something cool that you can call your own, that only a select group of people know what you’re talking about,” Matthew Richardson said.

Another young dancer, 16-year-old Erynn Richardson, said she’s been attending some of Marty Richardson’s classes to learn Tutelo-Saponi. She also said she’s proud of what she’s learned, even if she’s still far from fluent.

“Learning to decolonize your tongue and speak to different people in your tribe, using the language is really powerful,” she said. “When you get to say stuff in your own language, you get a deeper appreciation for the things you’re talking about.”

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In the Native American community, Marty Richardson explained, there’s a concept of “two worlds:” modern American society and the traditions and values of Native American society. He acknowledged that this idea persists, but said his thoughts have started to change.

“We live in one world and we have extra work to do,” he said. “We have extra time spent and commitment in order to keep our traditions alive, including our language, our songs, our dances. I’m living in one world. This is my world.”

As he works to rebuild his language, Richardson said he wants to see the Haliwa-Saponi people maintain their traditions while embracing and adapting to the times.

“I hope that we can continue to maintain our identity and also to change and adapt to the times that we have here, but also to remain native and be proud of it,” he said. “Be proud of your language, be proud that you have a language.”

He smiled and looked down to the dictionary in his lap, flipping through the pages absentmindedly.

“Maybe we can use a word for ’the speak,” he muttered, his mind already on creating a word for “language” and the task ahead.

Aislinn, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill from High Point, North Carolina, is majoring in reporting and minoring in English and women’s studies. She will join Pharmacy Times as an Assistant Editor after graduation.