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Four tribal college presidents say their institutions are trying new methods to preserve — maybe even expand — the number of people who can read, write or speak their tribal language.
The four presidents — David Yarlott of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Richard Littlebear of Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Carole Falcon-Chandler of Aaniiih Nakoda College in Harlem and Haven Gourneau of Fort Peck Community College in Poplar — spoke in Billings Friday as part of City College’s Tribal Language Symposium.
As part of its 2018 summertime language institute, Little Big Horn College decided to compile an Apsáalooke dictionary. Yarlott said he hoped they’d gather definitions for 10,000 words. Instead, they came up with nearly 14,000.
Dictionaries are a handy reference. Native language dictionaries are also a resource for those learning or re-learning their languages. The process of creating a Native language dictionary can be a difficult and time-consuming task. The Crow Language Consortium hoped to document 10,000 words at a recent 10-day session specifically for collecting words from fluent speakers. They ended up with 15,000. The words will go into an online and print dictionary. We’ll learn more about how various tribes are working to write down their languages.
The Crow Language Consortium, The Language Conservancy and Little Big Horn College have come together to create a new Crow language dictionary. Local residents involved include Roanne Hill, Dr. Janine Pease, Tim McCleary and Fr. Randy Graczyk – all members of the Consortium.
The Language Conservancy program already has worked with another tribe, the Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico. With this tribe, they transcribed more than 10,000 words and placed them into a dictionary that showcased the tribe’s Acoma-Keres language. On the Crow Reservation, the Conservancy hopes to have the same amount of success.
“People get really fired up when we do these rapid word collections,” said Mitch Teplitsky, the organization’s communications director. “It’s a fairly new methodology for collecting words… developed by another organization called the Institute for Linguistics.”
“I’m determined to see my great-granddaughter have the opportunity to regain the language. I want her to be Crow, not an amalgamated, globalized, generic human being.”
Founding president of Little Big Horn College… first Crow woman to earn a doctorate… MacArthur Fellow… Janine Pease has been a leading force for Native American education for decades. Janine sat down with us during the 2017 Crow Summer Institute to talk about the Institute and her own language revitalization journey.
I’m Janine Pease, and I’ve been working here at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana since 1975. I’m Crow Indian to begin with, so this is my home. My work is to help our adults get the training and education they need to be complete, full, powerful, human beings.
For the past four years, I have been teaching humanities, communication arts, and social sciences. I also work on language issues, particularly language immersion, and have been Coordinator of the Crow Summer Institute for several years. It’s some of the most inspiring work I’ve ever done.
Can you give us a snapshot of Crow Nation today?
The Crow Nation is in South Central Montana, and our reservation is huge, one of the largest land bases owned by a Native nation — 2.1 million acres, in-between the size of the Rhode Island and Connecticut. We used to have a much larger land base. Our first reservation was thirty million acres. But it has always been in this general area. We were never relocated. We’re privileged to be right in the middle of our homeland.
Our tribe has 13,500 members, about 75% of whom live on the reservation. We’re not among the largest tribes of the nation, but we have a very strong language and cultural identity. Our children are served by fourteen different schools..
How many people still speak the Crow language?
Well, there’s various estimates. The lowest is about 1500 really fluent speakers. I’ll take the middle ground. I think there’s more like 2500 speakers, less than 20% of enrolled members. In the 1960s, our fluency rate was about 85%.
There’s a lot of pressure on our language. Kids have access to cable TV and social media, which is all in English. Parents, young parents may not be making a conscious decision not to teach their children. They themselves may be semi-fluent or passive speakers, but they aren’t in turn handing their knowledge of the language on to their children. We’re very, very shocked and upset about language loss. Because we really want to have a vital language. The drop has been precipitous.
Why does language loss matter?
Our language contains all of the cultural elements, all the history, all the literature, all the traditions of the Crow people. We’re 13,500 strong in the entire world of 6 billion people. Our language carries all of that. Language vitality is the vehicle through which all of that can continue into the future. We’ve been a people for thousands of years, distinctive from all the language, culture and tradition around us. We expect to stay distinctive for generations to come. Our language is the lifeline that maintains and keeps all of that together. It’s like the oxygen in a tube that goes to the respirator. This is what language is to our culture.
There’s a lot to show that language strengthens. Language can have a lot to do with resuscitating, with revitalizing, with bringing back how life fits together.
It’s easy to look at the number of Crow and say, “There are only 13,500 of you. What’s the big deal?” To us, that’s our world. That is who we are. We care enormously about that. About our people, our land, our water, our history, our traditions.
How did you get so involved in language revitalization?
My involvement with language immersion came about somewhat gradually. Although Little Big Horn College has always had a deep commitment to revitalizing the language. We require all our students to take Crow Language I and II, as well as Conversational Crow.
In the year 2000, when I was Cabinet Head for Education, I was commissioned to study language immersion in Native America, Native Hawaii and Maori sites in New Zealand. I spent two years visiting sites and studying the writings by indigenous people. I became aware, on a broad basis, of what’s happened with Native Languages and their revitalization efforts.
Around that time, our chairman Cedric Black Eagle wanted to establish a lead language immersion site at the Head Start. So we put together a proposal that successfully funded three years of Head Start language immersion nests. It was very exciting to see our children in a Crow language immersion learning environment.
In 2011, we studied the fluency of our children who entered Head Start that year — and found that only around 15% actually spoke Crow. We didn’t realize how much language loss had occurred with our very youngest children. We were shocked. And I began to realize there was little or no association between all of the Crow language teachers.
How did The Language Conservancy enter the picture?
Well, it was about that same time I met Wil Meya from The Language Conservancy — actually through a relative of mine who lives in Bloomington.
Wil came out to Crow Country, and we met with all the schools on the reservation. Wil talked about the work they were doing at the Lakota Summer Institute. The schools expressed enthusiastic support for this type of language revitalization work, especially curriculum development.
It became apparent we needed to have the Language Consortium here on the ground in Crow Country.
So Wil and I, together with Father Randolph Randolph Graczyk, the linguist in the Crow Language, and John Boyle, a linguist with the Hidatsa language, established the Crow Language Consortium. We patterned it in a lot of ways after Lakota Language Consortium, with teacher trainings through the Summer Institute,, the publication of a dictionary and children’s books.
We recently became a 501(c)(3), and very excited to take new initiatives. Training more teachers, operating a language immersion school, developing apps for kids and families — we have lots of ambitious plans. We’re taking it one step at a time.
The Summer Institute has brought our teachers together. They certainly knew of another as members of the Crow Indian community and as educators. But because they’re at far-flung points around our reservation, they weren’t acquainted with each other’s work.
Each had created their own curriculum materials for their classroom, but they hadn’t met one another, much less talk about their own innovations or experiences with the children. The institute brought them together.
The participants have worked together on all the workbooks we use now for Crow language teaching. Father Randolph has been the lead translator, making the curriculum really come alive. But everyone has gone over absolutely every word.
So we’ve built a group of professional Crow language educators that didn’t exist before. We’re very excited about that, and the teachers have benefited greatly. Through the Summer Institute, we’ve been able to assist teachers build their expertise in language teaching methods, and expand exponentially their materials. That’s very exciting.
But the real beneficiaries are the children in the classroom. We’re excited to see expertise in Crow reading and writing return to the classrooms.
I have a grandson in the Lodge Grass Language Immersion School, and he’s become quite a speaker of the Crow Language. My great granddaughter has been attending Songbird Daycare, where they have a language immersion part of their day, and she comes home with quite a bit of Crow language.
You sound optimistic….
I am optimistic! I’m optimistic because we have school districts interested in devoting learning time to the language and culture. We have bright and understanding teachers of the language who are fluent in the Crow language. And we have young people who are fluent who can step in or expand that expertise in our learning environment.
See, children have a marvelous learning capacity. A lot of adults say: “I can’t learn it, I don’t know how they can learn another language.” ” But for heaven’s sake, all around the world we see children learning multiple languages! That’s what we’re counting on in this revitalization effort: the remarkable learning ability children have.
And we know about successful language restoration efforts elsewhere: Gaelic, Maori, Native Hawaiian, and so on.
So I think we’re at a pivotal moment where we can reverse that trend. But in all grades, there’s tremendous work being done.
Can you talk more about the work still to be done? What are the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is we need schools to give more time for language and culture. Some of the schools may give 15 minutes once a week. That’s hardly enough to make the difference to gain fluency. We want to see our children speak Crow to one another on the playground, telling stories, making jokes. That’s not happening now — but it could be happening in a very short period of time. Especially for the little kids in the language immersion schools — they are speaking the language all the time. So we know it can happen.
There also needs to be parent and family commitment. We need to have a more comprehensive look at the child’s full environment. Working on a commitment that’s community-wide is something that really needs to occur. What’s going on in the school is also a family initiative, and a tribal nation’s initiative.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, perhaps from a personal perspective?
My great-grandmother, my grandpa, and my dad were sent to boarding school. They were allowed to speak only English. And so now, in my family, none of us speak the Crow language.
Now my grandchildren understand Crow, but don’t speak it. I’m determined to see my great-granddaughter has the opportunity to regain the language. want her to be Crow Indian. I don’t want her to be an amalgamated, globalized, generic human being.
If we lose the language, it’s like pulling the plug on our lives.
There’s another line of discussion on language learning that has to do with the colonization of Native Americans. I recently came across writings of Native women who are looking at the mental health of Native Americans and the effects of intergenerational genocide. The removal of people from their homelands, their traditions and cultures is the fourth definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations.
What’s been lost over many generations, it will take perhaps that many generations to restore. It’s really intergenerational heartbreak.
We need to think about just how big the loss is. We need to conceptualize it. We need to talk about it, and understand just how how mean it is, how harsh it is on our people. We’re making an effort to do something that’s not easy.
The challenge is to realize the power we do have. It’s not going to take some outside power. It’s power within that will really make the difference.
We have friends. And I think that’s one of the most exciting things that we’ve been able to experience is the work of the Lakota Language Consortium.
We’ve found that we are not alone. And that’s really, really amazing. That’s so key, I think, to the daily discouragements that you have. You’re really not alone.