February 11, 2004: Perspective

Illustration by Andrea Arroyo

Lost City, lost languages
Searching for words that bind generations

By Elizabeth Seay ’90

Elizabeth Seay ’90 is the author of Searching for Lost City, which was published by the Lyons Press in November.


Lost City is a real place, back in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. To get there, you must leave Oklahoma’s plains. Gradually, the hills approach and fold you in secretive valleys. The roads curve, and sight lines shrink. The trees multiply, approach the road, line it, and finally loop over the top, locking their branches so you are driving in a tunnel of green.

In these woods that cover northeast Oklahoma and reach into Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri, things that have disappeared elsewhere are alive. People see bald eagles and black bears; outlaws and militiamen hide in the hills. The elusive thing I came to find was a language. People had told me there were places in these hills where Cherokee was spoken.

I was looking for more than Cherokee. I was looking for any Native American languages I could hear. Once, more than 300 of these languages existed in the area of the continental United States; now the number has dwindled to fewer than 175. As few as 20 are expected to survive into the middle of this century. I suspected that Oklahoma was a haven for some of the remaining languages. As I drove, I glanced occasionally at a creased map on the passenger’s seat. It was covered with Indian words, naming places in the state: Ochelata, Talihina, Anadarko.

I was an unlikely person to be drawn to Native American languages. Westerns always bored me. I have no Indian ancestry. I grew up in Oklahoma, but my community looked east for inspiration. After I graduated from Princeton, I moved to New York. It was there that I landed by chance on a Web site that mentioned “original television dramas in Choctaw and Creek.” TV shows in Choctaw? As the words glowed on my computer screen, I looked up at a picture-postcard map of Oklahoma, which I kept pinned to a bulletin board as a token of home. I had long thought the names on it – Ochelata, Talihina, Anadarko – were all that was left of the Indian languages. But now I wondered if the state had a kind of unrecognized wealth – a treasury of languages.

What interested me sprang not so much from memories of Native America as from the poetry I had read as a child and an idea I had about the value of language. Authors Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine write that in Micmac, a language spoken in Canada, some trees “are named for the sound the wind makes when it blows through them during the autumn, about an hour after sunset when the wind always comes from a certain direction. Moreover, these names are not fixed but change as the sound changes.”

There is something about this notion that invites us to leave what Aldous Huxley calls “the ruts of ordinary perception” for a moment. Instead of classifying trees with known names, we imagine a mind-set in which we can actually hear the sound of wind in the trees. We can see the trees in a new way, without the residue of the arbitrary syllables that we know. The concept heightens our auditory sensibility and reminds us that there are other ways of making sense of the natural world.

Learning new languages can bring unnoticed ideas into focus. The Comanches have a word for the bump on the back of the neck, which is thought to be a place where the body is centered. The Muscogee-Creeks single out the particular kind of love that children and their parents and grandparents feel for each other, using a word that also means “to be stingy.” These words convey information the way cups carry liquid, giving a shape to the contents. And they embody the accidental poetry found in the ordinary speech of another language.

I soon became aware that Oklahoma had two dozen Native languages and began to realize that I had grown up in a rain forest of linguistic diversity – and thus of ways to look at the world. The state, whose name is a Choctaw coinage meaning “red people,” is the former Indian Territory, where the government drove more than 60 tribes in the 19th century. The remnants of about 40 still exist.

I also became interested in understanding the meaning of language loss. Whether small languages are worth preserving is a controversial question, not just in Oklahoma but around the world. From 50 to 90 percent of the nearly 6,000 languages now spoken – such as Harsusi in Oman, Saami in Finland and Russia, and Ainu in Japan – are likely to disappear during this century. A few languages, like Gaelic, Maori, and Hawaiian, have been brought back from near-extinction, but most remain at risk.

It’s hard to judge the value of other people’s languages. How to measure the importance of keeping around Ponca, Ainu, or Aramaic? If languages are worth preserving, how many dollars are people willing to spend on the effort?

With time running out, I decided to find out what was left of the languages in Oklahoma. Lost City was one of my first stops on that journey. Though I didn’t find many Cherokee speakers there, it helped me to form an ideal of what I was looking for: a lost city in the larger sense, a hidden community where a Native language remained a link between generations.

I went on to meet the last of the Comanche code talkers, who used their language to deliver messages in Europe in World War II; I learned spells from a healer; I listened to a young man who used Seminole words in his hip-hop music; and I watched young students diligently, lovingly, trace the strokes that formed the letters of the Cherokee alphabet.

Though my most hopeful visions of secret language havens didn’t quite materialize, I learned to appreciate the strength and rarity of what I did find. I now see the Indian names on the map of Oklahoma in a new way. Pontotoc, Oklahoma, is a secret sister city of Pontotoc, Mississippi, linked by the Chickasaws’ path between the two places. Anadarko shares its origins with Texas, where some of the Caddos once lived. Nowata was named by the people who named Manhattan. Those links of migration and memory are largely forgotten. But a whispered history of the country is contained in the words.


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