Living the Legacy: Keeping the Comanche Language and Culture Alive

Moribund: In terminal decline; lacking vitality or vigor. (Oxford Dictionary)

“Languages across the world are in crisis. Half of the world’s languages are “moribund, spoken only by adults who no longer teach them to the next generation.” The language loss among North American indigenous people is “especially acute,” where an estimated 155 languages are still spoken, if you add in the Alaskan Native languages. Of these 135 are moribund; and the U.S. Census of 1990 indicated that one-third of these have fewer than 100 speakers. “Native American Language Immersion: Innovative Native Education for Children and FamiliesPease Pretty On Top, J.

Terry and her Mom, Geneva Woomavoyah Navarro

Terry and her Mom, Geneva Woomavoyah Navarro

My mother, Geneva Woomavoyah Navarro, was born in the small town of Apache, Oklahoma in 1926. She was born to Esther Tooahimpah Tate and Max Woomavoyah, and is a full blood Comanche. She was raised by her maternal grandparents, Frank and Mookemah Nevaquaya. Geneva grew up to be their English interpreter as neither one spoke English for as long as they lived. My great-grandfather was “granted” several acres of land due to the Dawes Act of l887 (Allotment Act) in which Native people were “given” land. In the case of my relatives; this happened after they were released from their captivity and imprisonment by the U.S. government during the Native American holocaust in this country. Though the Comanche were not farming people; they were expected to leave their nomadic ways and become sedentary and settle into that lifestyle, which many did.

Geneva grew up with Numunu (Comanche) as her first language. She lived with her large extended family all under one roof for several years. Many of her aunts and uncles went to boarding school at St. Patrick’s Mission in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Geneva’s grandmother did not want her sent away. She has said many times that her grandparents would have been happy to have her stay at home with them and not attend school at all. Her aunts and uncles would relate the harsh punishment and strict regimen of the boarding schools to their family. Though all the children were fluent, they also began to speak English when they would return home. Her grandmother would become agitated and hit the table with a spoon because she couldn’t understand her children. “Ketha thivo tekwap! Numu tekwap!” (Don’t talk like the white man! Speak Comanche!) she would say. Reluctantly, my mother was sent to the local public school for a general education. She recalls how her grandmother would ask her many questions about her day when she would return home.

One of her favorite stories is about the use of the chalk board.   She told her grandmother that the teacher had a special pencil and wrote all over the wall and even would sometimes allow the children to write on the wall, as well. Her grandmother told her, “Don’t you bring that pencil home!” She would read to her grandparents out of her history books. One time she was reading about Indian people to them. Her grandfather told her, “Those are lies! You rip those pages out of that book!” She told him that she could not tear her school book up. He was terribly angry about how the Indians were being written about in the texts she was using.

When Geneva was sixteen, her beloved grandmother became ill with tuberculosis and died. She had gone up to her junior year in high school. Her grandfather told her that she could quit school if she wanted to. However, her stepfather disagreed and convinced her grandfather to send her to Haskell Institute; present day Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Kansas. She attended classes and enjoyed her time there, studying nursing. From there, she went to St. Anthony’s Nursing School (Oklahoma) where she enrolled into the nursing program and became a registered nurse. Once in a while, she talks about her experience with racism. Her non-Native roommate was scared of her because she was a Comanche and would not room with Geneva because she was afraid of getting attacked by a “wild Indian”.

After finishing her training, she was sent to Keams Canyon, Arizona and worked among the Hopi and Navajo people. During this period of time, the job location was chosen and if one wanted to work, they were sent out by the agency. She talks about being there during the l940’s when there were no paved roads and she was taken to the job in a wagon on the dirt roads.

Geneva was a nurse for forty years in both IHS hospitals and public hospitals. After Arizona, she relocated to California, and then back to Oklahoma again. She worked as a head nurse at the city hospital in Anadarko, helping to desegregate the hospital during the early 1979’s when many in Oklahoma were very prejudiced. She was a school nurse for the Anadarko Public Schools, and then worked for several years at the Lawton Indian Hospital. She then returned to Keams Canyon after her children were grown and married. From there, she took a position as the director of nurses in Santa Fe, N.M. with the Santa Fe Indian Hospital. Geneva ended her nursing career in l986, when she retired at the age of 60. It was during this time in her early retirement that she became involved in being a docent at a museum in Santa Fe. She was increasingly aware that there were fewer Comanche speakers. Most fluent speakers were elders and many were passing away and taking their knowledge with them.

“Karen Washinawatok, the Director of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission also reinforced this point during our interview when she said: “That’s why knowing our language is so important, because it teaches us who we are; it’s not just a set of words. It’s about our history, it’s about our heritage, it’s about our way of life that our ancestors have fought and died for.” The Bias of English Dominance. McDermott, B. 2014  

Geneva became a language activist, working with the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe. She also began language classes in Albuquerque and in Santa Fe for those Comanche people in the area who wanted to learn and practice the language. Along with Inee Yang Slaughter (Indigenous Language Institute) and others, in 1998, she helped to establish a language fair in Santa Fe and at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. The Annual Native Language Youth Fair was created for young speakers of Native languages who competed in different categories which encouraged them to practice their distinct languages.

In 2003, at age 77, Geneva testified for the Native American Languages Act before the Committee on Indian Affairs and the U.S. Senate. This hearing was to amend the Native American Language Act and provide for the support of Native American languages and for survival schools. She received the Indigenous Language Institute award, “Those Who Make a Difference” in 2005.

After moving back to Oklahoma with her youngest daughter, Geneva became an adjunct traditional language instructor at the Comanche Nation Tribal College and also taught the language at the Comanche daycare center. She helped to create The Comanche Dictionary. Geneva also won a second major award, the Oklahoma Spirit Award, in 2005. She gradually moved back to N.M., and resumed teaching the language to urban community members.

Geneva traveled to many areas of the world and always found opportunity for our language and has informed others in various parts of the world of our beloved language and culture. She has traveled to Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Paris, Jerusalem, Bosnia, England, and extensively throughout the U.S. She always represents the Comanche people by speaking our language and telling others about the history of the Comanche. She is also a traditional dancer who can often be seen in her buckskin dress at powwows. As one of the most respected elders of our Native community; today she is still in high demand as a speaker or as one who prays and gives blessings in our language at various events. Nearing 88 years old, she is constantly on the go. Among her greatest admirers are her four children, ten grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandson.

November is Native American Heritage Month, preferably referred to as American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month.

Terry Gomez is a NMAO-TAC Project Web Assistant at the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc. (NICOA). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.