Choctaw Nation leaders discuss heartbreaking loss of elders, language due to COVID-19

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DURANT, Okla. (KFOR) – COVID-19 has had a huge impact on tribal members, especially the elders… Many of them have passed away from the virus, taking the native language and traditions with them.

Choctaw Nation leaders describe the loss as heartbreaking, as they fight to keep their culture.

“It’s taken a toll on us,” said Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton. “When we lose our elders, we lose our traditional knowledge. We lose our history. We lose the ceremonial things that we have done in the past, and so they are essential to us, as well as critical is our language.”

Chief Batton said this time of social distancing has been difficult, as the Choctaw people are family-oriented. Under usual circumstances, you can often see them gathered at community centers.

The pandemic put a halt to those activities over a year ago.

“A year doesn’t sound like a long time, but it is a long time when you’re used to going and doing things every week and maybe two or three times a week with your friends,” said Carole Ayers, a Choctaw Nation elder.

Ayers said it has been difficult for her and her husband to watch from afar as their friends are taken from the coronavirus. She mentions that depression has set in with elders, who are worrying that life won’t ever be the same.

“We have to be more optimistic than that. We can’t give up,” said Ayers. “It’s very difficult.”

Ayers is a second language learner of Choctaw, although her grandmother was an original enrollee. Back then, though, tribal members were discouraged from speaking, as doing so would lead to punishment.

“The language was starting to be lost then,” said Ayers. “Since it was considered to be forbidden to speak, there’s a big gap between that generation and my generation, where people are starting to say, ‘hey, we’ve lost the language now.'”

Ayers had been teaching Choctaw to a group of seniors in person, but had to stop when the pandemic set in. Although technology is available to some, many find it hard to learn the language, which has several different dialects, over the phone.

“It’s difficult to call them on the phone and say, ‘hey, let’s do the lesson for the day.’ It’s always better in person when you have a group of people and everybody’s having a good time,” said Ayers. “I try to study as much as I can, but you have to understand it’s a very difficult language.”

Ayers said it is important now to share the language with children while they’re in the early stages of learning, to pique their interest and to ensure that knowledge is passed on.

“Until we get a lot of people enthused about that, the language is going to be very difficult to save,” said Ayers.

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