Her first nine years she spoke
only the language of the People.
Then came the day she was dragged off
to the white man’s school in Anadarko.
It was the time when the lands
north of the Washita River were “opened”
and the white settlers, the ista·hi?i,
poured from Kansas into Oklahoma
to take the lands of the People.
She had been called ka·santatieh,
“following with scalp,”
but now they called her Bertha.
She had been called tikammac,
“grinder of corn,”
but now she was called Bertha.
She held close the language of the People,
the kirikir?i·s, the Racoon-Eyed,
even as they forsook the tattoos
that gave them that name,
even as they forgot the proud
ways of the Wichita.
So many no longer understood.
Her children could hear,
but could not speak their language.
The People were becoming silent.
To dispel the great loneliness,
she spoke the ancient words
to the son of her grandson.
She told him the tales of the People,
how they were given
the great gift of corn, ni?ac?a.
She told tales of the animals –
of the crafty rabbit, kó·kis,
the clever coyote, k?ita·ks.
Now she is gone,
and there are only a few left
who can speak as she did.
They gather and try to recall the words
that she had used to bring the tale
of the Turtle, Buffalo and Coyote
to its end:
“Ka:?a:wakhát?as k?íta:ks í·ri’ha·ss,”
she would say,
“There are times, when the coyotes,
~ Roy Beckemeyer
Roy Beckemeyer has most recently had poems in the periodicals: Coal City Review, The Lyric, and The Journal of Kansas Civic Leadership; the anthologies: Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, and To The Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices; and the web page: 200 New Mexico Poems.
David S. Rood (Professor of Linguistics, University of Colorado at Boulder) spent many years documenting the rapidly disappearing language of the Wichita people. In Sketch of Wichita, a Caddoan Language (David S. Rood, 1996. Pp. 580-608 In: Goddard, Ives (ed.) Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 17: Languages. Washington: Smithsonian Institution) Rood related that Bertha Ross Provost was his primary assistant between 1964 and her death; she was one of the last fluent speakers of the Wichita language.