Princeton Seminary | The Yuchi Language Project

The Yuchi Language Project

Restoration Grounded in Spirituality
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When the Yuchi Language Project (YLP) launched in 1994, Dr. Richard Grounds had one goal in mind — to try to fulfill the vision of the Yuchi people’s elders. “Our elders were committed to trying to keep our language alive,” says Grounds. “So, we started working with our children.”

Fueled by this motivation, Grounds, who graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1995, set out to fulfill the hope of his elders by passing the Yuchi language to a younger generation but he soon realized they were already behind. The World War II generation were the last cohort of language speakers up to that time. While there are a few individual speakers, that generation represents the end of having a group of language speakers who grew up together speaking Yuchi as their first language, he says. “The WWII generation was the end of that long history of transmission of the language from mother to child for thousands and thousands of years.”

“The few elders who are fluent learned from their grandparents and not their parents, who were unlikely to be fluent, which can be attributed to the assault — which in academic settings includes messaging that the language is dirty, will get students in trouble and is something of the past — on the Yuchi community, culture and traditions,” he says.

With this in mind, Grounds started YLP, a Sapulpa, Oklahoma-based nonprofit with a mission to “keep alive the rich heritage of the Yuchi people by creating new young speakers of our unique language through breath-to-breath immersion methods with master speakers and children.” As the executive director, his role includes teaching, developing curriculum and fundraising among other tasks.

Since inception, it’s been a learning process. Prior to starting the work, there were about 20 people who were fluent in the Yuchi language and most of them were over the age of 70. While Grounds and his colleagues have been committed to learning the language themselves and carrying it forward, they’ve been learning how best to accomplish these goals effectively, too. It has taken a while to detach from colonial education mode, which is not uncommon in most language communities, he says.

Grounds, who learned the language as an adult alongside his children, found that it’s more a matter of usage and less about teaching or formal instruction. This notion became the catalyst for a switch to immersion with the launch of the Yuchi Immersion School in 2018. At the school, children progress in aged cohorts. They learn the language, storytelling, arts, sports, and more in addition to writing and math that meet state and national standards.

When his daughter, Halay Turning Heart, got married, she had long before committed to only speak the Yuchi language to her children. Because other young couples have also been inspired by her example, to make the same commitment, the immersion school now has 22 students enrolled. Over the years, children in immersion programs have shown astounding results in not only learning their language but also achieving higher performance in reading and math. As a comprehensive approach, classes are also offered to adult learners to ensure parents and caregivers can support the language outside of the classroom setting.

The land that houses the school sits on more than 60 acres of land south of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a place where Yuchi people reconnect to the land, traditional animals, and heritage crops. This creates a culture of interconnectedness that hinges on reclaiming not only their language but also a stronger connection to the earth and the traditional understanding of who they are as a people.

"It’s a spiritual task to keep the fullness and richness of the Creator's work in our community"

Advocacy and Amplifying the Plight of Indigenous Communities

Efforts outside of YLP’s core programming include supporting other language programs and Indigenous language communities. This is done in several ways with the most notable being Grounds’ advocacy efforts that include his annual participation at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. His attendance, facilitated by the United Methodist Church, symbolized a show of support as he promoted Indigenous languages and began calling for an UN International Year of Indigenous Languages, which ultimately took 16 years of campaigning. The goal is to raise awareness and curate active support to bring back their languages, he says.

The UN declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous languages through the General Assembly. This recognition became a global phenomenon that has been parlayed into the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which started in 2022. It’s a move in the right direction that creates an opportunity to raise awareness, celebrate their languages, collaborate as Indigenous communities and partner with other organizations, churches, and state governments.

“It also means that individual churches across what is now the United States of America, are all sitting on Indigenous land, and can find ways to help,” Grounds says. “They are benefiting from the genocidal assault against those original communities. So, individual congregations can still support those Indigenous communities that are from their area, even if they have been ‘removed’ from their original homelands given by the Creator.”

Reacquiring and buying back land is also an important part of the healing process. The hope is to garner financial support that’ll help restore a positive relation to their own history and traditions, he says. Creating a written language is a major key to that restoration, as well.

Grounds has developed an orthography, or writing system, to aid in the transition from an oral tradition only. The uniqueness of the language presents a challenge because it's a linguistic isolate, which means Yuchi language is unrelated to any other language. He’s also developing language materials, although there have been other challenges along the way.

You’re trying to fight your way upstream by going against the flow of the colonial project that’s intended to sweep away all resistance, all alternative pathways and all indigenous original ways of thinking and relating to the earth, Grounds says.

“The biggest challenge is not, technically, whether we can teach the language to adult, second language learners,” he says. “It's not really whether we can get the language to our children, effectively through immersion, but it's overcoming the mentality of defeatism and following blindly along with the colonial model.”

While they continue to endure adversity, Grounds and his team remain committed to the work. His life and educational experiences, including time spent at Princeton Seminary, affirmed his faithfulness to the cause.

Grounds’ time at Princeton Seminary afforded him connections to the larger church community, international students and Indigenous people from other parts of the world. He also learned about the rich history and traditions of the Christian community and how they apply in today’s society. Since graduating, he found gratification in collaborating with a fellow Princeton Seminary doctoral student while serving on the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee. He also reunited with Archbishop Paulos, who he cultivated a relationship with while at the WCC World Assembly during Seminary.

These events, in part, helped form the approach and understanding of how to support and embrace other tribal nations and Yuchi community members who have a long-running, deep connection to the church and Christianity.

According to the Yuchi people’s Elders, it’s all grounded in spirituality.

“From a spiritual point of view, our elders are fond of telling us that it’s the Creator who has given us our language and, in that sense, it’s a spiritual task to keep the fullness and richness of the Creator's work in our community and in the world,” says Grounds. “From both a spiritual and traditional view, it's our understanding that we've been put here as Yuchi people to fulfill our role, and it's critical that we carry out our original instructions and keep it alive in our ceremonies and in our traditions through the hearts, minds, and tongues of your young people.”

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Pastor of Scottsboro Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Alabama

Micaiah Tanck, Class of 2015

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