Robert L. Rankin, a University of Kansas linguistics professor who died recently, will be remembered for his efforts to document the Kaw language, leaders of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma 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. "... You can't put a price on something like that."
Rankin, who taught at the University of Kansas from 1969 through 2005, died Feb. 24 at a Kansas City hospice at age 75, according to the Bowen Donaldson Home for Funerals in Tifton, Ga., where Rankin grew up. A Memorial gathering is scheduled at the University of Kansas Union on March 11.
The Kaw, also known as the Konza and Kanza, claimed a territory that covered about two-fifths of 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. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Kaw children were sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak the language or observe tribal customs.
After Rankin received his bachelor's degree in French and Spanish from Emory University and a master's and doctoral degree in linguistics from the University of Chicago, he was invited in 1974 to attend a Kaw family gathering in Shidler, Okla., when there were few surviving speakers of the Kaw language left, The Wichita Eagle reported (http://bit.ly/1kND2Fz ).
Rankin met three Kaw who still spoke the language. He also recorded one of them reciting the Lord's Prayer in Kaw and would later produce 28 reel-to-reel tapes in the Kaw language. The tapes were dubbed, digitized and converted to compact discs in 1996.
Rankin also 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.