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~ Runęhkwáʔčhęʔ Duane Brayboy

Editor's Note: We welcome our new author, Duane Brayboy.  

Runęhkwáʔčhęʔ Duane Brayboy is a citizen of the Tuscarora Nation (NC)

and a member of Bear Clan.  He is a language enthusiast and encourages

all native Turtle Islanders towards language reclamation and fluency in

their birthright languages.  He strongly believes that Native language

revitalization is at the center of Native identity.  As a Tuscarora language

learner and teacher, he emphasizes the urgency of learning the language

so that it may be taught to the next generation from birth.  His eighth grandfather, John Braveboy, was the forebearer of the family name.  As a youth of approximately 13 when the Tuscarora war began in NC, John was given the name Brave Boy for performing a meritorious act in battle against the colonists.  John Brave Boy was a resident of the Tuscarora Indian Woods reservation in Bertie County, NC and his children migrated to present day Robeson County, NC to establish a new intentional community for Tuscaroras. 

A Tree Without Leaves

It was Summer, 1981 and while visiting my Puerto Rican friend, I had heard his mother say to him “te amo.”  I expected to hear Spanish being spoken there and he asked if I knew what that meant and I did, then he asked me how to say “I love you” in my people’s language.  I paused as a wave of embarrassment and shame hit me, because I didn’t know and I knew I should have.  I was 11 years old and could say this in Spanish, French and German, but not my own people’s language.  So when I went to my grandmother’s home next, I told her this story and I asked her the same question.  I was sitting on the edge of her porch and after a minute, I looked back to her for her answer and I saw her wiping tears from her eyes.  She was a strong woman.  I could count the times I ever saw her cry, so I knew there was considerable pain attached to my question.  She was crying because she didn’t know how to say “I love you” in our Tuscarora language either.  Growing up in the international communities that are military bases and their host cities, most of my childhood friends were immigrants.  Mine and my family’s closest friends were Vietnamese, Puerto Rican and Mexican (in addition to a Pequot, Cherokee and other Tuscaroras).  My first job was cooking at a Japanese restaurant, my second at a Mexican restaurant and my third was working for Germans.  So, in my formative years to early adulthood, I was surrounded by people who had unequivocal cultural identities that distinguished them from others.  My own cultural identity was fractured as I was missing the most obvious cultural identifier that is language.   

The Sound Is Fading 

There is a justified pressure to speak English as a first language in the U.S.  If there is pressure for people on the other side of the earth to learn English to facilitate expanding their goals in life, the pressure here in the U.S. is validated, but it comes at a cost to Natives, whose birthright languages are dying at unprecedented rates.  Collectively, Native languages have struggled to survive through an extended state of moribund - a point of death, for many generations.  Firstly, parents stopped teaching children their languages, then stopped speaking it themselves, then the grandparents who spoke the language made their Journeys to Sky World, until finally there was nothing left to teach and nobody left to learn from.  As long as Natives could communicate in our own languages, Native cultural and spiritual practices would continue and as a result, so too would our claims to independent nationhood and the lands held in common since time immemorial.  Even before the settlers had a foothold on Turtle Island, they began kidnapping coastal Catawba children (in present day NC) to force them to adopt European religion, language and customs.  For this crime, the Catawba “Cape Fear Indians” raided the fledgling English settlement, killed as many as they could and the survivors fled south in their ship.  The early peddlers of organized religion used the Native lands on the east coast as a springboard to project themselves westward.  We are not at fault for letting our languages die.  It would be more accurate to say that theywere stolen from us in the white fire of colonization and it has been impossible to keep our cultures and languages intact as we have lived through forced removals from our orignal homelands, genocide (qualified by the Geneva Convention definitions of genocide) including slavery & eugenics programs, paper genocide, abject poverty, police brutality, missing and murdered Indigenous women, intergenerational trauma, undereducation/illiteracy, employment discrimination, etc., in addition to the inevitable results of such atrocities such as alcoholism, sexism, substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, physical illness & shortened life expectancy, loss of culture to include outlawing our spirituality and subsequent religious abuses, civil disenfranchisement and loss of language (to include forbidding the use of our languages).  It was the settler’s intention to destabilize Native American culture to deliberately weaken us so that we were easier to defeat.  The most powerful forces for greed and evil focused their worst intentions on us with predictable results.  The erasure of Natives by way of assimilation was a matter of U.S. policy.  It would be unjust and unfair to the ancestors to attempt to soften the brutal reality of our past.  Our survival alone is a testament to our resiliency, having lived through one of the most efficient genocides in known history; damaged, but with a sense of dignity and humor that has come to define us as a race.  Before moving on, I ask you to pause and consider what you just read.  It was never a simple case of “Natives just stopped speaking their languages” or that they were too lazy to preserve it.  Think of how comfortably you speak English now and what it would take for you to never be able to speak it again after today.         

The Shame Game

My people migrated from the Tuscarora Indian Woods Reservation in Bertie County, NC and other places in the Tuscarora strongholds of northeastern NC to present day Robeson County, NC, bordering SC.  These were our old hunting grounds and after decades of injustices, we began the move to this place that holds some of the least desirable land in the region.  Swamps and pocosins were poor substitutes for the rich farmlands we once had, but it was a safer place, or so we thought.  It was not long before the settlers began following us and quickly established themselves as overlords in our new territory to enact white rule.  They were never bold enough to attempt to infiltrate our communities, but close enough to establish anti-Indian laws in the precinct that became Robeson County.  It was during this time that they would shame us for speaking our language, which they said we sounded like hoot owls and screech owls when we spoke.  It is easy to see how a European immigrant would think that, considering that in Tuscarora, the two most common standalone prefixes are “u,” which sounds like “ooo” and and “aw-,” compounded by the fact that the only lengthened sounds are vowel sounds.  After migrating from Indian Woods Reservation, some of our people settled at a place in our current territory they called Uhčíhręʔ Kì·nęʔ, meaning “Bear Creek,” but as more settlers moved into the area, they extended their English name, Rockfish Creek, as they called it, to blanket our language and then another Tuscarora place name was erased, although many Tuscaroras remembered it.    

In the natural procession of life, our identities are cemented at an early age and our language is an integral component of our identities.  Remembering my grandmother’s tears of our lost language, at age 21 I set out to reclaim all the sacred that I could, to build on what we had left, because I did not want another generation of Tuscaroras growing up without the language that matches our blood.  I was hopeful when Blair Rudes published his Tuscarora dictionary and while a dictionary is not set up as a language course, it was still a great resource in our language revival.  Thankfully, the language seekers within my community had been making some progress. Rahθęʔnyéha·ʔ Chris Lowry was one of them.  He and I had mutual friends and after our paths crossed, we began working together. Finally there was a real sense of advancement, but there was an emotional undertow that I always tried to rise above until finally it could no longer be ignored.  The pang of shame Ifelt for having just embarked on actively learning my people’s language in my 40’s was crushing to me.  The feeling that this was something I should have known my entire life was strong and very real.  So then the course of our language revival has personally been a humbling experience. 

Both Sides The Neuse

Forwarding to July of 2016, Chris and I travelled to theTuscarora reservation in NY to attend the first annual Tuscarora Language Camp, sponsored by Nęyękwawętaʔθkwáhshek, which is the Tuscarora language preservation group.  Despite what I had begun to learn, I arrived at Tuscarora, NY as an absolute beginner in comparison to those from the rez, but was humbled by the patience and good minds of the individuals in the language preservation group.  Everyone else there had grown up with varying levels of exposure to the language, where I had none.  The Tuscarora reservation in NY is home to our relatives who migrated from the southern villages in NC and we who have remained in NC from the northern villages. Those who arrived in NY in 1715 after the war with the colonists in NC, they were surrounded by other Haudenosaunee people, which was at least an encouraging culture to sustain their langauge and customs, where those of us who remained in NC were left surrounded by enemies both old and new, including the settler’s rush to form oppressive white power structures that kept Natives under their power with pressure to assimilate. From our new home of Robeson County, our reconnaissance raids in SC to bring home Tuscarora slaves made us enemies of the SC government.  My uncle George Lowry (and grandfather of Rahθęʔnyéha·ʔ) in 1864 eulogized at the funerals of his three sons who were killed by the Confederate Home Guard and spoke of when the white man came to our lands we treated them kindly and they promised us that if we took up their ways, their language, “that we would prosper.  Now we get no justice and that in a land where we were always free.”

A New Hope

For years I have heard Native friends from different nations speak of wishing to connect with their ancestors and despairing over the disconnect of time and destabilization of our cultures.  I have told them that if they are interested in getting in touch with the ancestors, then learn their language because their worldview is intimately woven into every aspect of it and I would argue that this is the most effective way to see the world through their eyes.  The substantive progress of the Tuscarora language revival has been considerable.  The Tuscarora language preservation group has proven what many never believed was possible, which is consistent with the Tuscarora spirit; doubt us and we will prove the opposite.  More Tuscarora citizens are getting involved, Tuscarora musician Jennifer Kreisberg is performing and recording songs in the Tuscarora language, weddings and other ceremonies are being officiated in Tuscarora and the language learners are now having lengthy and complex conversations in the language. There is much to be proud and hopeful for.   Currently Ethnologue, which is an annual reference publication that provides statistics and other information on the living languages of the world, lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States,with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction with only a few elder speakers left.  The last native born Tuscarora speaker was Rayę́ʔthuhs Howard Hill, who made The Journey in July of 2018.  He was Onondaga Eel Clan, but from the Tuscarora reservation.  He selflessly dedicated so much of his life to preserving the Tuscarora language.  Despite the government’s role in advocating the extinction of our languages, it is our responsibility, each and every one of us, to save them.  No outsider will come to save our languages for us.  This must be something we do on our own.  If there were ever a time to invigorate or reinvigorate one’s sense of duty to nation and honor to ancestors, that time is now.  The selfless act of passing on knowledge to others nurtures a sacred bond of interconnectedness that is imperative to the personal development of the youth and also fosters a genuine sense of belonging within a community in the elder generations. We have never been independent of others, but interdependent for survival.  I was never able to tell my grandmother “Kęnurę́hkhwaʔ” in our Tuscarora language, but maybe it is not too late for you to tell your family that you love them in your people’s language.