DURANT – Chief Gary Batton spoke the prevailing sentiment at the Dedication Ceremony for the New Choctaw Dictionary when he said, “This is a historic moment.”
The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation is at the center of the front cover. Above the seal are the words Chahta Anumpa Tosholi Himona. It’s official – there is a new dictionary of the Choctaw language.
Inside, the reason for the cultural preservation effort can be found among the Acknowledgements: “ Chief Gary Batton who tasked us with the question, ‘How can we sustain our traditions for the next 100 years?’ Our response was to create a user-friendly, learner’s dictionary. Thank you for presenting and past Tribal Council members for your continued approval and financial support.”
The Choctaw Language Department considers this to be a significant work, not only for its long-ranging impact but because it represents to the Choctaw people the inspiration to learn their language.
“It’s published by the Choctaw Language Department,” said Jim Parrish, Executive Education Director of School Programs for the Choctaw Nation, speaking before the ceremony. “The dictionary contains 4,000 words,’’ he said, adding that “It was a project that took 14 years to complete.”
Printing was done by Choctaw Print Services in Durant.
It is also the first lexicon update since A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language by Cyrus Byington published in 1915.
Present for the book dedication Monday, March 20 in the South Building of the Choctaw Nation Headquarters in Durant were tribal elders and employees, members of the Choctaw Tribal Council, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Dictionary Committee that developed the book’s contents.
Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr. served as emcee, introducing Choctaw Employee Chaplin Olin Williams to open the event in prayer. Williams, in turn, introduced Bob Ludlow from the Dictionary Committee who took the lead as the committee and some others present joined in a rousing Choctaw hymn that had everyone on their feet.
Williams then gave a prayer in both Choctaw and English. His prayer encompassed the importance of the day. Williams said, “If we ever lose our language, we will lose our soul.”
Parrish said there were many contributors to the book, including Language Department staff. But it was those known as the “first speakers” or those who spoke Choctaw before they learned English, who carried the load for more than a decade.
Teresa Billy, Assistant Director for the School of Choctaw Language and also a Dictionary Committee member, explained how the committee worked, “… meeting around tables, discussing, using software, laughing a lot.”
Billy provided a brief history of how the language books had come about and expressed great reverence for Byington, a white Christian missionary from Massachusetts who worked with the Choctaws in Mississippi and later in Indian Territory. With his first printed works in 1852, Byington translated and wrote Choctaw hymns, prayers, and Bible passages, as well as the first Choctaw dictionary.
Billy pointed out that for those teaching or learning the language the New Choctaw Dictionary is not meant to replace the Byington version, “but is another tool, a supplement.”
The presentation of a First Edition copy to Chief Batton by the Dictionary Committee highlighted the ceremony. Chief Batton, visibly moved by the event, as many were, said, “This is for all the people. It will go on display in our new headquarters.”
Each member of the Dictionary Committee signed the book, adding to its value. The core group, listed in the front of the book, are Richard Adams, Teresa Billy, Hannah Bryan, Eleanor Caldwell, Kaye (Noah) Choate, Bernie Davis, Mike Davis, Lola John, Abe Frazier, Bob Ludlow, Christine Ludlow, Rebecca Nahwooksy, Lillie Roberts, Eveline Battiest Steele, Betty Ward and Jack B. Martin, linguist.
Representatives of the Choctaw Store, located at the Choctaw Welcome Center in Colbert, had a display at the ceremony where both hardback and soft covers were available. Representatives stated that the New Choctaw Dictionary is already on shelves at the Choctaw Store, 1882 Hwy 69/75 in Colbert, and online at www.ChoctawStore.com. Hardcover copies are $44.95; soft covers, $34.95.
“It will also be available at the Choctaw Nation Museum in Tvshka Homma,” said Parrish.
At the close of the ceremony, the ten committee members in attendance signed copies as for a line of people with new books in hand.
Chief Batton, Assistant Chief Austin, and others spoke of growing up using the earlier dictionary with family members. Future generations of Choctaw speakers are likely to be doing the same with the New Choctaw Dictionary.
“This is the rebirth of the Choctaw Nation,” said Chief Batton.