ONEIDA RESERVATION, Wis. – Educators within the Oneida Nation School System are working to expand the number of tribal members who speak their native language.

Rosa Francour says for the Oneida, language is key. She’s the lead educator for the Oneida Nation’s Tehatiw^nakhwa Language Nest Immersion Program. She says she came to really learn the language as a college student.

“Because I didn’t know the language when I was younger I had no idea or a sense of who I was even though I was an indigenous person,” Francour said. “Our language is a huge part of our identity.”

Now she teaches young Oneida students the language in an immersive environment she says has the potential to save the language for future generations. From the moment class starts until it ends, everything is done in the native language.

“We’re planting the seeds. It’s like a ripple effect; one drop… it’s going to travel a long way,” Francour said.

“It’s really about duplicating ourselves on into the future,” said tribe’s high school principal Artley Skenandore. “That duplication process is just like DNA, and in this case our culture, our language, is the contribution today that gets judged in the future of how well it’s been.”

Part of living the culture is realizing the painful history of the Oneida Nation, Francour said.

“Our language is a medicine. Our words have power,” she said. “They have the power to connect us to who we are and where we come from and our past, and that is really what we need to heal from a lot of this historical trauma.”

There was new trauma as a result of the pandemic as COVID-19 took the lives of many native speakers in tribes throughout the U.S.

The CDC in December 2020 published the results of a study which found the American Indian and Alaska Native population saw its members die of COVID-19 at nearly double the rate as white Americans per 100,000 individuals.

Tribal leaders says elders dying is akin to the language dying if there aren’t efforts to teach it to younger members.

Skenandore says tribes nationwide are establishing educational efforts from the same immersive model. He says the future of his people’s culture depends on these efforts.

“Those are the essential practices that give us confidence about what the future looks like, that wherever they go and whatever they do, their foundation’s their identity, and that’s our contribution today is to widen that road of identity,” Skenandore said.