Rita Coosewoon, 87, was reminiscing about her childhood at Fort Sill Indian School when she paused mid-sentence, searching for a word.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” she said with a smile that never reached her eyes.
“My brain always thinks in Comanche, and sometimes the English translation just can’t do it justice.”
A leading tribal judge, Coosewoon wears many hats in the Comanche nation, but as one of the few fluent Comanche speakers, she considers herself a linguist first and foremost.
This expertise in his mother tongue has not been easy to maintain.
Coosewoon couldn’t recall exactly which of her relatives dropped her off at boarding school as a young child, but she remembers that moment as the greatest threat she faced to preserve her language and her motherly culture.
At Fort Sill Indian School, native languages were banned. Those who spoke them risked severe punishment, and Coosewoon often found himself among the disciplined students.
“I don’t know if it’s my stubbornness or by the grace of God that I remember the things I remember,” she said. “I know I shouldn’t remember this, but I’m so grateful to do so.”
She said she watched her peers slowly concede pieces of their Indigenous cultures. Most had forgotten the Comanche language by the time they left school, if they had ever known it at all, she said.
Coosewoon’s class was not the first to be educated at the school. Many of her classmates’ parents, who had been disciplined there before her, had never taught their children to speak native languages for fear of repercussions.
The trauma of rehabilitation, she explained, has been passed down from generation to generation.
His granddaughter, Martina Minthorn, reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, and they shared a tacit understanding. A tribal history preservation officer, Minthorn explained that in her work, stories like her grandmother’s are common.
“Extinction education is not something that started with Grandma Rita,” she said. “It’s been happening to our people since we were first locked down in Oklahoma. It’s been happening to our people since before.”
Even the name “Comanche” itself is a marker of European intervention, given to the tribe by Spanish authorities in New Mexico. The word is a variant of “Kimantsi”, an Ute Indian word, and although its exact meaning is debated, it is generally believed to translate to “enemy”. Today, the tribe uses the name Comanche alongside the name they have always given themselves – N?m?n??, which means “people”.
Minthorn said the end of the nomadic lifestyle of the Comanche people came with the signing of the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty in 1867. Prior to this, the tribe, which split into bands, covered much of the Great Plains and migrated to follow the bison herds.
Having to abandon their way of life was detrimental to their culture and language.
“We didn’t give up slowly, over time,” Minthorn said. “It happened immediately. It happened because it was forced. We had Fort Sill right here in our backyard.”
Fort Sill was built in 1864, just north of what would become Comanche Nation land.
The military base would set up many structures that would target native culture, including the boarding school and a prison called the Ice House.
At the Ice House, Minthorn said, Comanches were incarcerated and abused for refusing the restraints imposed on them by military oversight. The ruins are on an unmarked site within the boundaries of the army post where field artillery soldiers are trained today.
Minthorn is working with elders in his community to have a sign placed at the site marking its significance and talking about its current implications.
At 40, his efforts are turning heads.
“A lot of people like to think the Comanche died with my generation,” she said. “They really like to think of us as the past, but it’s our job – the young people – to show them exactly how resilient our people are.”
Editor’s Note: Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.