At the time of his death in 1999, Parker McKenzie was regarded as the oldest living member of the Kiowa tribe. Born in a teepee in Oklahoma three years prior to the 20th century, he was also widely recognized as an amateur linguist who played a fundamental role in developing a dictionary of his native Kiowa language nearly 100 years ago.
“He was just known for being the guy that you would go to,” Andrew McKenzie recalls of his great-grandfather, whose many projects included the documentation of Kiowa history, cultural artifacts and language.
The elder McKenzie’s method for writing Kiowa using English characters is still used, in a modified version, by researchers today. And Andrew McKenzie, who grew up knowing bits and pieces of the language, is one of them.
McKenzie, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, recently secured a grant from the federal government that will allow him to continue his great-grandfather’s work in preserving the Kiowa language — a pressing need, McKenzie says, as the number of fluent Kiowa speakers dwindles by the year.
“Languages only exist in our minds, so once those speakers leave us, they take the knowledge with them, essentially, unless that knowledge is preserved through documentation,” says McKenzie, who began formally studying Kiowa about 20 years ago. “In that sense, the documentation becomes essential because it would allow the language to survive into the future.”
The more complete that documentation is, McKenzie adds, the better chances are for the language’s survival as native speakers pass away. Kiowa, like many North American languages, is “extremely endangered,” says McKenzie, who estimates there are about 60 fluent speakers left. They’re mostly elderly and concentrated in McKenzie’s home state of Oklahoma, where he often travels to conduct interviews with remaining Kiowa speakers. And they likely won’t be around much longer, he says.
“I think the…