The Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas

Henry Willis, Choctaw speaker, author, and language educator (1929-2016)

Henry Willis, a native speaker of the Choctaw language, an author, educator, and consultant, died peacefully on June 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City, OK. He was surrounded by family and loved ones, who, in Choctaw, Kiowa, and Lakota, sang him into heaven.

Henry was born December 21, 1929 in Purcell, OK. As was the case for many native children at that time, he was taken from his family and placed in Goodland Academy, a boarding school, until he reached adulthood. However, Henry was allowed to return to his family during the summer; hence he retained his native language skills. He made a career in the building trades, eventually becoming an industrial electrician. He and his wife Carole raised seven children.

After his retirement, Henry turned his attention to the Choctaw language. In 1992, he began to work with linguist Marcia Haag, serving as a classroom teacher for several years at the University of Oklahoma. With her he published two pedagogical grammars, Choctaw Language and Culture, Volumes 1 and 2 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001, 2007). Henry additionally served as a consultant for Muskogean linguists Aaron Broadwell and Jack Martin. He was a language consultant for Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma for many years, for the Dictionary Committee, the online language courses, and the high school language courses. He made several audiotapes for student use. He contributed to the Chahta Anumpa Holitoblichi archive project.

After retiring from the classroom, Henry worked diligently on the translation of the manuscript of the secretarial notes of the Choctaw council meetings 1826-1828. This work was published as A Gathering of Statesmen (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Besides linguistic work, Henry translated the five children’s books by author Mary Frye – the “Push stories”—published by Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He also wrote poems and stories in Choctaw.

Henry particularly enjoyed refining Choctaw bible translations, teaching his Sunday School Choctaw class, and working with his many private students. He received numerous awards and honors for his work in revitalizing the Choctaw language.

In the final words of the funerary poem Chimilhfiopak ‘Your Life’: “Ish onakma, lawa kvt chi-afvmmachi, micha na, yukpa hosh chi-ayukpachi afehna achi hoke.” ‘When you reach there, many will meet you, and with gladness they will welcome you well.”

— Submitted by Marcia Haag

Updated: July 4, 2016 — 7:09 pm

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