Known for her lifelong devotion to teaching and preserving the Kiowa language, author and educator Alecia Keahbone Gonzales was named to the USAO Alumni Hall of Fame on Saturday, Nov. 5 2005.
“I’m speechless,” Gonzales said. “This is an overwhelming honor. I am so grateful. I love to share the ways of my people, the Kiowa,” she said.
Gonzales’ work has made her a celebrity of sorts for her knowledge and enthusiasm about Kiowa history. In fact, visitors to the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington hear Gonzales’ voice in recorded segments on an audio tour. Museum officials chose only one voice to represent each of five geographic areas in America. For the central United States, they chose Gonzales.
With the 2001 release of her Kiowa language textbook, the first of its kind in America, Gonzales may have secured the Kiowa language's future and created a veritable template for other Native American tribes to use for sustaining their own languages.
Gonzales teaches Kiowa language classes at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO) in Chickasha, where she approaches the Kiowa language from a "bicultural" viewpoint using two distinctly different languages. She also teaches at Anadarko High School.
She takes pride in training student interns at the college who can assist in teaching the Kiowa language.
The title is "Thaun Khoiye Tdoen Gyah: Beginning Kiowa Language," which illustrates the book's relationship between the Kiowa and English languages. “Beginning Kiowa Language” was published by USAO Foundation. Copies of the textbook are available at the USAO Campus Bookstore, 405-574-1304.
Born in Ft. Cobb, the Kiowa-Apache author and teacher was surrounded by a mixture of Kiowa and American cultures. She was Apache Tribal Princess as a young girl. In the 1950s, Gonzales presented "The Lord's Prayer" in Indian sign language on the first color television broadcast of "The Dave Garraway and Arlene Francis Show." In 1962, President John F. Kennedy presented her with a lifesaving award. She graduated from the Oklahoma College for Women with a bachelor of arts degree in 1965, then obtained her master of arts degree at Southwestern State College in 1974.
Gonzales has been a speech pathologist, a dean of student services, a guidance counselor, and always an educator. She has also been a member of various groups, such as the Oklahoma Federation of Indian Women, the National Education Association, the Caddo County Education Association, and she was the 1993-94 recipient of the Indian Woman of the Year award.
In recent years, Gonzales has taken legendary Kiowa folk songs and is giving them life through children’s storybooks. Printed by USAO, these bilingual children’s books include “Little Red Buffalo Song,” “A Mother Bird’s Song,” and “Grandma Spider’s Song.” They are available in the USAO Bookstore and from Anadarko Daily News and the Apache Tribal Smoke Shop in Anadarko.
Readers see the story in both Kiowa and English shown parallel to one another. For non-native speakers, a special CD-ROM is included that features the author reading the story in both languages.
The two remaining books in the collection, “Grandmother’s Song” and “The Prairie Dog Song” are set for release in 2006. After that, Gonzales hopes to publish a Kiowa vocabulary textbook with audio CD.
“I didn't do all this myself,” Gonzales said. “I have the educational background, I have the know-how to do it, but if it weren't for the people in my life, the Kiowa and non-Kiowa, I wouldn't have been able to do it," she said. She credits her aunts and uncles, “who served as my working dictionary,” she said.
After the death of her parents and other elders, Gonzales says she realized the language would die without a systematic, written method of teaching it.
“I was nurtured by my grandparents into education,” Gonazales said. “They believed deeply in the value of education, especially the tribal form of education. This was the seed from which we’ve grown today’s high-tech preservation of language. Today we publish a CD that helps people learn to hear and speak the language.”
Gonzales sees herself not so much as a pioneer but as a contributer to a long tradition of preserving the language. Her heroes include Parker Mackenzie of the Mountain View area, who assisted John P. Harrington in early preservation of the Kiowa language in the 1920s.
“Harrington’s work eventually earned him the doctorate,” Gonzales said. “My work is using Harrington’s work and my experience as a child to assist others in carrying forward our great language.”
Probably her greatest influence, she said, came from her grandfather, Tennyson Berry, a longtime resident of Caddo County. “He was a musician and was a protégé of John Philip Sousa,” Gonzales said. “He was a debater in the Ivy League schools and made friends with men who became lawyers and senators, people he could call on to help regarding government-tribal relations. “He was probably the most significant influence of my life.”
Another great influence came from her grandmother, Annie Jones, of Verden. “She taught me cultural aspects and critical skills: beading, tanning hides, and cooking, as well as the moral standards of our tribe,” Gonzales recalled.