Lost Poems, Legends, and Proverbs

Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, 82, the last Wichita Indian fluent in the language of her people

Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, 82, the last Wichita Indian fluent in the language of her people

.The Wichita language is one of 199 that is critically endangered, meaning there are fewer than 10 elderly speakers, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

All told, some 2,500 languages are in danger of becoming extinct or have recently disappeared, taking with them poems, legends and proverbs, according to the organization, which released its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger in mid-February.

Several hundred people spoke Wichita four decades ago, when University of Colorado linguistics professor David Rood started studying it. Today, only two or three know many of the words, and only McLemore is fluent, he said.When she’s gone, a unique form of expression will disappear.

“Language reveals a lot about our cognitive system, about how you recognize the world you see around you,” Rood said.

“Every time you lose a language, you’ve lost part of the picture of what the human intellect is capable of.”

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In 1864, 1,500 members of the Wichita and affiliated tribes had been forced by Confederate troops to leave their reservations in Oklahoma. They settled at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers in an area between what is now Murdock and 13th Street.

According to a history provided by the tribe, they had no land to farm and few friends. Many starved, and others suffered from smallpox and cholera epidemics. They had only 822 people when they returned to Oklahoma after the war.

J.R. Mead, an early Wichita developer, suggested naming the city after the tribe, and the name first appeared in print in 1868 on an advertising circular distributed to cattlemen moving their herds north along the Chisholm Trail. 


See also: "Language and Meaning: An Ojibwe Story," On Being, October 1, 2009

Update: "Last Wichita Speaker Passes Away," KSWO-TV (ABC News), August 31, 2016