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Linguistics professor Robert Rankin worked to document, preserve Kaw language

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 10:53 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 11:05 a.m.

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When Robert Rankin, a linguistics professor from the University of Kansas who spent much of his career researching and documenting the Kaw language, died last week, his wife called the Kaw Nation in Oklahoma to tell them the news.

She also offered to give the Kaw Nation his ashes, Kaw tribal leaders said.

“If it wasn’t for his work, we wouldn’t have our language,” said Jim Pepper Henry, a Kaw tribal member who is now director and CEO of the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art in Phoenix.

“He single-handed preserved our language. … You can’t put a price on something like that.”

Final arrangements to honor Mr. Rankin’s life by the Kaw Nation are pending. He was 75.

Robert Louis Rankin was born Jan. 17, 1939, in Bellefonte, Pa. He childhood was spent in Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana, Florida and Georgia. He graduated from Tifton High School in Georgia in 1956.

His interest in the study of languages came from an interest in ham radio.

“Hearing those voices coming from Europe and Asia and all these places and wanting to understand everything that everybody said that sort of piqued my interest,” Mr. Rankin told Jewell Willhite in 2006 in an oral history interview.

He received his bachelor’s degree in French and Spanish from Emory University in 1960; his master’s in linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1968; and his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1972. He taught at KU from 1969 through 2005.

In the summer of 1974, Mr. Rankin was invited to Shidler, Okla., to a Kaw family watermelon feed. There were only four surviving speakers of the Kaw language left, and it was a time when the language and the cultures were rapidly disappearing, according to the Willhite interview.

Also known as the Konza and Kanza, the Kaw claimed a territory that covered roughly two-fifths of modern-day Kansas and parts of Nebraska and Missouri. By 1873, the U.S. government was forcing the tribe off its 250,000-acre reservation near Council Grove to Oklahoma. The state of Kansas is named after the Kaw Nation.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Kaw children were sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak the language and observe the tribal customs.

In the summer of 1974, Mr. Rankin met Made McCauley Rowe, Walter Kebahbah and Ralph Pepper – all Kaw people who still spoke the language.

According to Kaw Nation history, Mr. Rankin asked Rowe to recite one of the tribe’s stories. She wouldn’t do it, telling him those were told only during the winter. She instead recited the Lord’s Prayer to him in Kaw. He recorded it and later that night transcribed it.

All told, he would produce 28 reel-to-reel tapes in the Kaw language. The tapes were dubbed, digitized and converted to compact discs in 1996.

Johnnie Ray McCauley, who was Kaw, told the Eagle in 1996: “I just want to hear it (the language) again. There has been no one else to talk it with.”

McCauley died in his home a few months after receiving the CDs. When he was found, he was wearing headphones and the CD recordings of his late aunt speaking the family’s native Kaw Indian language were still playing, according to his obituary in The Eagle.

Mr. Rankin continued working with Kaw Nation, serving as a consultant with language directors and helping publish the “Kanza Reader.”

“My hope is that through our language and culture, the Kaw Nation will live on,” said Pauline Sharp, a Wichitan who serves on the Kaw Nation Culture Committee.

The gift of Mr. Rankin’s ashes is a high honor, Pepper Henry said.

In an e-mail to The Eagle, Pepper Henry wrote:

“Professor Rankin often used the saying ‘Ne Yinge Manyin’ (walk without pain or go forth untroubled). He was given the name ‘Kaanze Koya’ (Kaw friend) by the Kaw Nation.

“ ‘Ne Yinge Manyin Kaanze Koya’ (Go forth untroubled Kaw Friend).”

Mr. Rankin is survived by his wife, Carolyn Rankin.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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