Over those two years, I familiarized myself with more Indigenous language writers and came to the understanding that in order to craft an authentic Wazhazhe ie poetics, I would not only need to incorporate contemporary experiences into my language writing, I’d also need to ensure that my style emphasized the worldview and thought systems of ancestral speakers. With Wazhazhe mentors, I studied using the Learner-Driven Language Learning (LDLL) technique developed by the Indigenous Language Institute (ILI). Their curriculum recommends accelerating language learning by pairing it with cultural learning; I’d heard the same from sources that ranged from a linguist co-worker at the tribal school to colleagues at a previous job developing multilingual curricula at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In pursuing cultural learning, I was building on my experiences dancing in the I^loshka and cooking outdoors at Indian Camp with my cousin for family. But back in Pawhuska as an adult, I was dismayed to find that my cousin had moved away to Ponca City on the other end of the rez. My father had left Oklahoma years ago because of dysfunction in his nuclear family, and I was not close with aunts who lived nearby. I feared that people wanted me gone because I hadn’t grown up in my tribal district, and had only visited each year as a child. Learning my ancestral language and culture would require me to work through all that my family had left behind.
When I attended a hand game, I sat with co-workers instead of family. One teacher, a fellow passionate student of our language, put me in touch with her aunt, a skilled moccasin-maker. I think she could tell that I was more comfortable with one-on-one interactions than big gatherings, where I acted shy and didn’t know all of the protocols. Her aunt lived out in a small community a few miles away from Pawhuska, and she agreed to let me come by and visit.
Moccasin-making with my co-worker’s aunt suited me, even though I had to take my stitches out over and over again. With a needle in my hand and my eyes on leather, I didn’t feel so out of control. Instead of getting anxious, I got sleepy. We sat quietly in her living room, her beading moccasins on an old board situated across her lap while I sewed on the couch opposite her.
I couldn’t stop yawning, and told her that I might need to go home and take a nap.
She laughed and said, “You’re just relaxed.”
Maybe she was right. The focus required for the activity took my mind off Daposka Ahnkodapi, and whether there was enough Wazhazhe ie in our curriculum. My thoughts about the school would often spiral into all the reasons that our language was suffering, beginning with the common sentiment that we were not ready to revitalize our language, as it was too difficult.
We had no speakers born into fluent homes, where Wahzhazhe ie was the first language. Technically, our language was dormant. For some, speaking our language could feel like a betrayal of choices grandparents made to not speak. Elders of past generations had made the decision not to teach this language to their children, because speaking it might not only limit our ability to thrive in colonial life, but could endanger us, attracting racism and settler violence. For those generations, to not speak the language meant survival—even if it came at the expense of our language. Nowadays, most people who were from traditional families had not grown up speaking fluent Wazhazhe ie, and not speaking had become a sort of identity marker. Fluency was no longer a mark of authenticity, and reversing the trend of not speaking would take more than a few passionate learners.
Learning my ancestral language also made me feel like a bit of an activist, a role I wasn’t comfortable with given a conservative upbringing; and how much more, I thought, if I tried to write? Another full year passed before I decided to finally try my hand at writing in Wazhazhe ie. I just couldn’t wait any longer, continuing to worry and wonder about readiness and unreadiness. So I applied for a program supporting Native artists undertaking a cultural project, and enrolled in a writing course on documentary poetics. Led by Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier, I learned how to use words from a document as a word bank, re-ordering them to create my own messages in conversation with the document. I worked with the 578s, a documented list of Wazhazhe ie phrases gathered by Dr. Mongrain Lookout, and collaged the Wazhazhe ie phrases in mirrored patterns, creating narratives while also giving my poems a visual element. The word for writing, waleze, is the same word used for all two-dimensional art. Engaging multiple meanings of waleze was satisfying, and I relished adding color and design to my words. With encouragement from the class, I started painting Wazhazhe ie phrases, using color to amplify the language and free up the sense of fear that I felt surrounding its use.
I just couldn’t wait any longer, continuing to worry and wonder aboutreadiness andunreadiness.
The work I’d done to study the language made me confident enough to include some of the 578s in my first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, or Na^tse Wacpe, a collection of short stories incorporating Wazhazhe ie in dialogue and interior thought. Writing my language on the page of my own book provided me with a deep sense of ancestral resonance, of integrating my worldview as it was being reformed by Wazhazhe ie and elements of contemporary life. I was beginning to access something that I had disinherited, and was doing so in a new, thrillingly contemporary way. The first book written in Wazhazhe ie was the Bible, but this only utilized phonetic spellings while my book had untranslated sections in Wazhazhe ie, including titles in our orthography. Although Na^tse Wacpe was composed in the European form of the “short story,” its Wazhazhe ie was robust.
The availability of a language in literature and film increases its strength by making it more accessible to both speakers and learners, and Second Language Acquisition theory research shows that leisure reading is one of the fastest ways to acquire language. My book was a way for me to suggest that even if our people weren’t ready to revitalize our language, at least we could have Wazhazhe ie literature available to support language learning.
Linguists call the practice of putting a language into new forms—such as going from speech at home to creating a TikTok in the language—expanding domains of use. We were expanding the domains of use of our language with the orthography, and the Osage Language Department also began releasing videos telling stories and showing cooking techniques. I was so encouraged that our tribe was producing videos that made watching leisure videos a possibility in the language, and began to try and understand the videos as a new form of immersion study.
While waiting for such videos, I’d made recordings myself, narrating my favorite activities. I’d put together a video for making meat pies, building on curriculum from Daposka Ahnkodapi:
“Watsue ithile brida^ mi^kshe,” I am working the dough.
“Da the othokitha,” Cook this meat with it.
“Dozhu the tse opedxa^,” Wrap these meat pies.
I would follow along and listen to the phrases as I made the meat pies, and did the same for a yoga video and my morning routine, first making coffee and praying with cedar. Listening to these translations of my language while doing these practices heartened me. The daily ritual of heating the little cast iron on the range and smudging myself in cedar smoke while praying in Wazhazhe ie gave me a sense of connection to ancestors, and the language acceleration classes I taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts’ continuing education department helped me keep going, even when I was in isolation.
Around this time, I learned of a young Diné woman and poet also inspired by Indigenous language writing, Amber McCrary. She had founded a publishing house focused on dismantling the canon through a Native lens, called Abalone Mountain Press. Amber’s work fortified my belief that Native writers could learn and write in our own languages, helping revitalizers take down barriers in a world dominated by English. As Indigenous language learners and speakers created movies, books, and songs to help us immerse ourselves in our languages, spaces of revitalization would become more abundant. Through translating the ideals and language of Wazhazhe ie into a contemporary context, I knew I could find a way to grow the literature in our language. With Amber’s help, I organized an Indigenous language creative writing workshop called Words of the People, for those who wanted to help create writing in our languages.
The writers in Chiapas had started with workshops, too. In 2022, five years after that seminal moment at UC Davis, it seemed like I had finally formulated an answer for the question of those poets. Yes, I thought, we are writing in our languages. In the springtime, I translated a couple of poems by Phetote Mshairi into Wazhazhe ie, and discussed the challenges of conveying ancestral worldviews in English translations with new friends in Tulsa. I wrote an ekphrasis poem in Wazhazhe ie along with an English translation responding to a photo by Tom Fields. On my book tour for A Calm & Normal Heart, I spoke with a Wazhazhe designer about the implications of diverse typefaces and expressive design options in our orthography. I was making strides toward writing in Wazhazhe ie, and they were good ones.
I still want to go much deeper with Wazhazhe ie. To be able to write using Wazhazhe motifs of repetition and images and stories from my dreams. I dream of raising a child with Wazhazhe ie as their first language. Of waking our so-called dormant language with passion as a collective. Of continuing to translate Wazhazhe ie waleze into contemporary life. And I am just beginning to write in Wazhazhe ie.
Chelsea T. Hicks' writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Magazine , McSweeney's, Yellow Medicine Review, the LA Review of Books, Indian Country Today, Believer Magazine, The Audacity, The Paris Review and elsewhere. 'A Calm & Normal Heart' inspired by the Wazhazhe ie phrase, Nantse Wacpe, is her first book, out June 2022 from Unnamed Press. She is a citizen of the Osage Nation and her district is Waxakaolin or Pawhuska. She is a 2022-2023 Tulsa Artist Fellow and received a 2021 LIFT Award from the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation. She has taught writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she received her MFA, and she also holds a master’s in creative writing from the University of California, Davis. She is a 2016 and 2017 Writing By Writers Fellow as well as a 2016 Wah-Zha-Zhi Woman Artist featured by the Osage Nation Museum.