When Maria Hinton was born nearly 100 years ago, every Oneida family spoke the language of their ancestors. Now a great-great-grandmother, Hinton may be one of a few fluent Oneida speakers left in Wisconsin, but she is determined not to be the last.
Hinton recently put the finishing touches on an exhaustive recording of the Oneida dictionary. Taking five years of almost daily work, she recorded 12,000 audio files, including tens of thousands of Oneida words, and told stories she first heard in her mother tongue.
She’s had a lot to celebrate in her centennial year. At 99, she was named one of the first recipients of the Prism Award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for her quest to save the Oneida language.
“I am not completely retired,” said Hinton, of Oneida, Wis. “We need to keep doing this so the young people can learn things and then they can pass them on.”
Beside her, a young woman named LeAnne Thompson listens on the phone to the questions. She repeats them in English or Oneida for Hinton, who is hard of hearing, before Hinton takes the phone back and answers in English. Thompson has been Hinton’s pupil for 22 years, starting when she was 8.
By the time she reached her 20s, Thompson realized that what she had amassed was knowledge of words, not conversational language. She began visiting Hinton at her home, taking her to lunch and helping her with errands. Together they speak Oneida, the young woman who is now 30 keying on every inflection and turn of phrase her elder imparts.
For Hinton, Thompson is a model of the way the Oneida must now work to recover their languages. “She has four children and is a very active mom,” the elder says. “She comes here to learn.”
Hinton was among a generation that grew up speaking and hearing Oneida as the dominant language on the reservation near Green Bay, Wis. She was 10 in 1920 when she went to school and learned English. But she held onto her first language, standing up to matrons in order to keep her knowledge of Oneida alive.
“It was the predominant language when she was born, and for quite a few years after she became an adult,” said Jerry Hill, who is Oneida and president of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. “Over time people got assimilated, got jobs outside, got married, and it became less necessary.”
Still Hinton remembered. Her memory is a gift that was recognized in a name, Yaké-yahle, given to her at a gathering in Canada when she was 46. It means She Remembers.
A year later she left Wisconsin on a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles to be with her only son’s family. Her grandson, Ernie Stevens Jr., the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, reflected on her move to California when he accepted the Prism Award on her behalf in October at the museum in Washington, D.C. She cleaned houses and waited tables to help support the family, he recalled.
“She always has had a track record of being noble and proud,” Stevens said. “I don’t know how you get all that, and she don’t take any crap from nobody.”
In 1971, she returned to Wisconsin with her family. Soon she and her brother, Amos Christjohn, began working with the Oneida Nation to teach the language to a generation of children who knew only English. Two years later, at the age of 63, Hinton enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to earn her bachelor’s degree, even learning to drive so she could get to her classes.
She graduated cum laude in 1979 to become a founding teacher along with Christjohn at the Oneida Nation Turtle School. They worked with other elder speakers over 35 years to compile a dictionary with the help of a Yale-trained linguist, Cliff Abbott.
“We were trying to train a core of Oneidas who had enough ability in the language to teach it to kindergarten and first and second grades,” Abbott said.
Building on a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project to document the language, in which many grandparents and great-grandparents of Oneida families participated, the dictionary grew to 34,000 words. When it was published in 1996 there were between 25 and 30 Oneida speakers living, though many would pass away in the next few years, including Christjohn. Hinton continued working.
“Maria was one of the people who noticed that when people came to her and tried out their Oneida, their pronunciation was often terrible,” Abbott said. “I pointed out to her that the only way to prevent that was if they had a model, and we started the project of her recording the entire dictionary.”
The dictionary in Hinton’s voice can be heard on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay website at www.uwgb.edu/oneida/index.html. The database is searchable with English words.
Hill said Hinton’s gift is being a teacher to generations of Oneida learners.
“The woman has an infinite acceptance of people trying to acquire the language,” Hill said. “She is a quiet woman but very expressive. She has a lovely motherly way of generating trust and gaining acceptance. She brings the trust level down to where you are.”
Thompson said what Oneida students long for today is to be able to hear two Oneida speakers flow in conversation together. But with less than a handful of first-language speakers left at the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin there are fewer opportunities. Thompson said she persists in her own efforts because “the Oneida language makes my heart feel good.”
Hinton, who personally received her Prism Award from the National Museum of the American Indian at the National Indian Education Association in Milwaukee last fall, is still talking about the high school students who spoke Oneida, and sang and danced in her honor.
She remembers thinking, “Everything around us is Oneida.”