The old man sat with his arms folded while Katy, 15, Renee, 13, and Eleanor, 9, huddled to figure out how to say "bring the shovel," a tough question in a quiz game the community had dubbed "Yuchi Jeopardy!"
The girls whispered among themselves, then turned to the old man and recited loudly and in unison: "Saa-show-yaa haa-ah-nee kuhn-gunh" -- "the shovel, bring it!"
Henry Washburn beamed: "That's good, that's good. Say it over again, so you'll know how to say it better."
And they did.
The game is deadly serious. Washburn, 74, is one of perhaps 10 living native speakers of Yuchi, the language of a small portion of the Creek Nation in northeast Oklahoma. He is trying to pass the mother tongue to the children of the community in a race against time. "In a few more years," Washburn said, "there won't be anybody left to teach it."
All over the United States and the world, small communities are watching a part of their culture slide toward oblivion. There are about 6,700 languages worldwide today, and many linguists agree that at least one disappears every two weeks.
And the curve is steepening: "The only ones that are safe have some kind of power or state support, or have sheer numbers on their side," said linguist Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks. "That's less than 200 languages."
Many linguists believe at least half of the rest will be gone in 100 years. Krauss, more pessimistic, suggests that 95 percent will either disappear during the next century or become "moribund" -- spoken by a few elders, but untaught and unknown among children.
"That means a language is doomed," said linguist Ives Goddard, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History. "In most cases, there is no practical way to bring back languages in very small communities."
The phenomenon occurs everywhere. In Australia, linguists estimate that 90 percent of what used to be 250 languages are moribund. In Alaska, Siberia and the rest of the polar North, 56 of 72 languages are disappearing. In the Amazon jungle, 82 of 100 to 150 languages appear doomed.
There are many reasons.
Cultures isolated for centuries now have access to the Internet -- but only in a foreign language. A more powerful neighbor may offer greater opportunities -- but only in a different language. Television in a foreign language brings romantic, new ideas into remote living rooms. And even today, invaders or occupiers may use language to identify those marked for genocide or systematic repression.
And even as concern has grown, the world has become so blended and dispersed by intermarriage and modern mobility that those most critical to restoring a language -- children and young people -- often see no reason to do so.
Linguists agree that language endangerment is as pervasive in the United States as in any region on Earth. Before Columbus, there were probably more than 250 languages spoken in what is now U.S. territory. Today the Texas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics lists 192, and 135 of them -- or 71 percent -- have at best speakers who are "middle-aged or older."
Yuchi is the language of 2,400 descendants of a people who were "removed" from ancestral lands in Alabama and Georgia and sent to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838-39 along the "Trail of Tears" that other tribes traveled as well.
"When they tell about it in English, they leave out the real story," said Mose Cahwee, 82, another of the teaching elders who learned Yuchi history and folkways from his grandmother. "I kept it all this time, and then I saw that we needed to let these teenagers know what I know. It wasn't doing anyone any good for me to keep it in."
In the early 1990s, activists asked Washburn, Cahwee and other elders to help teach Yuchi to the rest of the community, centered in Sapulpa, about 20 miles west of Tulsa. Yuchi has no official alphabet, but uses an informal set of symbols as a teaching aid.
Progress comes slowly. Attorney Greg Bigler, 40, leads an adult class, while anthropologist Richard Grounds, also 40, enlisted Cahwee and Washburn to teach the children at Pickett Chapel United Methodist Church outside Sapulpa.
"We've had a weekly class for the last five or six years," Grounds said. "At times, we've had 25-26 people. Other times we've been down to a handful. We're just trying to carry it forward."
The children play Yuchi Jeopardy and Yuchi bingo. In the spring, they planted a traditional garden in Yuchi. In the summer they harvested it in Yuchi -- with the Yuchi names for hoe, ax, rake and shovel.
But it's hard going: "The teachers are old, and when we lose one we despair and don't hold classes for a couple of weeks, or a couple of months," Bigler said. "But we come back. We just keep plugging away."
The pattern of old folks teaching children appears in dozens of other Native American communities, the result of a century of repression that deprived entire generations of their language. "The first Indian policy was `The only good Indian was a dead Indian,' " said Krauss. "Then the policy was that the only good Indian was a civilized, English-speaking Indian."
When the United States took over Hawaii in 1898, the government banned Hawaiian from the public schools, and by 1984, when a private foundation began teaching the language in defiance of the restrictions, the Aloha State had 2,000 native speakers among a population of about 1 million. Only 35 were children.
In eastern Montana, Richard Littlebear, cultural affairs director for the Northern Cheyenne, recalls his teachers washing his mouth with soap or pelting him with pieces of hard cheese whenever he spoke Cheyenne in the classroom. Today Littlebear, 59, estimates only 2,000 of the tribe's 8,000 members speak Cheyenne, probably none under 35.
"The policy was devastating. Three or four generations who consider themselves Cheyenne had the thing that most distinguishes them taken away," said Littlebear.
Some people didn't cooperate. In Sapulpa, Cahwee held on to Yuchi through boarding school beatings and extra kitchen duty: "My grandmother told me, `They're going to try to take it away from you, but as long as you have it, wherever you go, whatever you do, you'll always be Yuchi.' "
But Littlebear forswore Cheyenne, considering it a liability in a changing world. He earned a doctorate, worked for the government and only returned to Montana in 1980 to take a job running a local bilingual program.
"Somebody had lied to me all those years," Littlebear said. "I found I liked talking and joking in Cheyenne." He became an advocate, "word coiner" and punster:
"We had no words for things like plastic, Styrofoam, rockets or mashed potatoes," he said, so he invented some. Computers were "tapping, writing things that almost know how to think for themselves," and the Styrofoam beads that cushion computers in packing cases became "ghost poop."
But by the time Littlebear and others elsewhere decided to do something about language loss, there were new difficulties. "We have much more mobility with cars and trucks," said Tessie Naranjo, 58, who teaches classes in Tewa at Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. "We are much more interested in styles in clothing, the computer, movies and television," she added. "These all contribute to the younger children not learning and the younger parents not teaching."
In Philadelphia, Miss., language fluency among Choctaw children dropped from 92 percent to 40 percent in 20 years as the 8,000-member community used light industry and casino gambling to lift itself from impoverished isolation to full employment and prosperity. "When I first came here in 1976, I was teaching the kids English," linguist Patricia Kwachka said. Now the tribe has a new Choctaw immersion program.
"The message you get from TV is always in English and never in your language," said University of Texas linguist Anthony C. Woodbury, a specialist in Alaskan languages. "Television presents a glamorous world, and never gives you any idea how to connect that world with yours.
"This is pure cultural nerve gas," Woodbury continued, noting communities that wish to retain their language must first answer one crucial question: "What do you get by knowing it?"
Krauss offers abstract reasons: There is beauty in diversity; no language deserves to trump another; each language represents a unique way of looking at the world; language is a living thing.
"Universal human experience is encoded, analyzed and expressed differently in different languages," Krauss said. "Every time we lose a language, we lose a whole way of thinking, and that's not good."
Members of affected communities have a harder-headed agenda. Cahwee noticed that the Yuchi were "losing out on a lot of federal programs" because they could not use their language to demonstrate the cultural cohesion necessary to obtain full tribal status from the federal government.
Bill Wilson, the non-Hawaiian founder of the islands' language restoration program, showed that his bilingual students learned better English than most island children, who speak a local street dialect. The state now supports the Hawaiian program.
Dorothy Lazore, a Mohawk teacher in Canada and northern New York for 20 years, believes that "if we agreed to learn our language, our people would get back their well-being," adding: "We need to be rooted in who we are."
In Natick, Mass., Jessie Fermino, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become a linguist so she could teach her people a language that has not been spoken for a century.
Her tools include a Wampanoag King James Bible written in 1655, hundreds of other early American Wampanoag documents and the knowledge that Wampanoag, an Algonquian language, has many living cousins.
Still, acknowledged Fermino, now 35 and working on a grammar for her master's thesis, "you really need a linguist to do this," and the tribe couldn't afford to hire one. "We had to create one," she said. "That would be me."
Last year, Fermino started a beginning Wampanoag class, and this year she expects 60 students. Her goal is to start a children's immersion program in which "there's no English spoken at all."
The prototype in the United States is Wilson's Hawaiian schools, which started in 1984 with 12 preschoolers and followed them through high school, adding to the curriculum a year at a time. The first 11 seniors graduated in June, and the system now has 1,857 students, including 200 preschoolers and 500 in kindergarten: "At one point you had 3- and 4-year-olds conversing with people in their seventies," Wilson recalled. "It's better now, but we still have a long way to go."
Many tribes confronting language loss have difficulty accepting the need for schools. In Mississippi, Choctaw parents "believe that if you're Choctaw, you speak Choctaw," Kwachka said. When tests showed that kids didn't speak Choctaw, "there were a lot of upset people."
In the Southwest, the Hopi and Pueblo have been slow to act because they believe language is sacred and shouldn't be taught in schools. A quasi-taboo also existed in Yuchi, which uses one set of pronouns for Yuchis and another for non-Yuchis, which include all other people, as well as dogs, cats and other beasts.
To write it, tape it or teach it was somehow a betrayal, but in the end, Cahwee said, he had no choice: "If I don't say these things, then nobody will ever know."