KICKAPOO RESERVATION, KAN. -- Before the English speakers came sweeping across the big sea water in their winged canoes, there were more than 400 native languages on the North American continent -- richly descriptive and onomatopoeic tongues that were perfectly suited to the values and social order of the American Indian.
Today, more than half of those living libraries of the nation's native culture have disappeared. Among the remaining Indian languages, a few are thriving -- Navaho, Eskimo and Ojibwa, in particular. But many others are endangered linguistic species, according to Lyle Campbell, an anthropologist and linguist at the State University of New York at Albany.
Only about a dozen Arapaho speakers are left in the world, Campbell says; when they die, their tribe's venerable language will die with them. The Delaware and Miami languages are almost equally close to extinction. Although anthropologists are busily working to preserve traces of these tongues in oral histories and scholarly monographs, the languages will be nothing but lifeless academic curiosities once there are no more daily speakers.
All of which helps explain the importance of an experiment in a big classroom at a small schoolhouse here in the rolling green farm land of northeast Kansas. In a program that could help stave off the death of another famous Indian language, a tribal school is teaching Kickapoo to the Kickapoo.
At the Kickapoo Nation School, a one-story white structure in the sleepy farm town of Powhattan, the 93 students from kindergarten to high school are being offered courses in the Kickapoo language. The students, in turn, are taking the native language home and helping revive it among their elders.
"Our language was about lost around here," said Debbie Wahwassuck, a member of the Kickapoo Nation school board. "Now the kids are coming home and teaching us. They talk Kickapoo with the grandparents, and our generation can listen in."
Howard Allen, a 29-year-old Kickapoo who is the chief language teacher, said the teaching of Kickapoo serves other pedagogical purposes as well. "Just like learning a foreign language, it helps the students with their English skills," the teacher said. "And it has made a difference in the children's self-concept. They feel better about being Indian."
Today, Kickapoo pervades the Kickapoo Nation School. "Go Weetaatheehaki!" screams a banner over the gym, the Kickapoo word replacing the English "warriors" as the school teams' nickname. The hum of antique tribal chants can be heard outside the music room. In elementary classrooms, students practice artwork in coloring books that feature the onomatopoeic Kickapoo names for familiar animals: kaakaakia (crow), pakahaakwhha (chicken), keekeenoseeha (donkey).
The Kickapoo, or Kiikaapoa (the word seems to mean, roughly, "the Wanderers") were originally a Great Lakes tribe, but they wandered south and west under pressure from white settlers and the U.S. government. Today, there are three branches of the tribe -- on the reservation here in Kansas, in Oklahoma and on the Texas-Mexico border. A University of Kansas study estimated that about 1,400 Kickapoo still spoke Kickapoo as of 1984, but most of them were elderly.
Kickapoo is part of the Algonquian family, a widespread, well-known root language that has bequeathed to Engish many familiar words, including pow-wow, raccoon, Wisconsin, moose, Mississippi, squash and skunk. The name "Chicago" is evidently derived from a Kickapoo word, Allen said, possibly from the word meaning "little skunk."
Allen saw the decline of the Kickapoo tongue in his own family. "My great-grandmother, Wanathekwa, spoke only Kickapoo, or Kickapoo and a little Potawatomi," he said. "My grandparents used Kickapoo and English. My parents speak English, with some Kickapoo phrases. My generation knows some of the phrases."
To stem that linguistic tide and to find a way to improve the students' language skills, the school started Kickapoo classes last fall with a federal Department of Education grant of $143,000. Teachers were hired, books and tapes were prepared and the classes were an enormous success, according to Superintendent Emerson Horace.
Now the Kickapoo are nervously awaiting word from Washington as to whether they will get money for another year. "One of the problems is that Washington doesn't provide any money just to keep a native language alive," Horace said. "Their grant is only to enhance English skills, so we have to file all this paperwork to prove that our children need help with English."
The Department of Education said the Kickapoo grant is in the "negotiating" stage but that such grants are normally renewed for at least three years.
Meanwhile, Allen is busy at his personal computer here putting together a new English-Kickapoo dictionary. The lexicon is needed because the children are expanding their ancestral language.
One of the students' inventions, for example, is mesenikani, derived from the verb for "capture" or "hold." The students created this neologism to stand for a common facet of Indian life in 1987 -- it's the Kickapoo word for "floppy disk."