Fourth-grader Nayola Lion Shows pokes at the surface of an iPad as the Crow language echoes around her.

The adults and children around her speak the Crow language, called Apsaalooke, during a Crow Language Night lesson in the second-floor classroom at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.

Lion Shows also is inviting the language into her life. She's using the Crow Apsaalooke language app. 

The app, complete with hundreds of words and phrases in addition to songs and historical images, is part of the Crow Tribe's attempts to use modern technology to make the traditional language appealing and accessible. The app, which can be downloaded from iTunes and Google Play, is also used as a teaching tool during Crow Language Nights, a series of public classes in February. 

Crow fluency has dropped from 86 percent among adults in 1969 to 28 percent in 2014, according to tribal surveys.

Birdena "Birdie" Real Bird has a theory about why the use of the Crow language has dropped.

"It’s due to all the technology,” said Real Bird, the Crow Tribe's director of the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program. “The TV, the phones, the YouTube.”

Dyanna Wilson, the tribe's coordinator for the program, shared Real Bird's concerns about technology and media that primarily involve English.

“I wasn’t always a technology person because I wanted my kids to speak the language,” Wilson said. “So I wanted their minds thinking in the language.”

Using technology

Wilson began to change her mind at a convention seven years ago, where a vendor, Thornton Media, presented a Native language app. It was an early version that relied on Nintendo DS disks. Thornton Media has created more than 200 apps for Native tribes and First Nations in 20 years, said Don Thornton, a Cherokee who heads the company. Tribes retain all rights to the apps, he said.

"(Wilson) saw the app and said 'We have to do this' and 'I think this is one of the resources we could have to wake up the people on language,'" said Real Bird, also is the head of the Crow Tribe's education cabinet.

Despite Wilson's enthusiasm, the funding for the app wasn't immediately available.

In 2013 the Montana Legislature passed the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program, which funded efforts from state tribes to preserve their languages. Real Bird and Wilson then reached out to Thornton Media in 2014.

For six months Wilson, Real Bird and others worked to gather the information needed to create the app ahead of Thornton's arrival on the reservation. They spent hours transcribing and translating words, collecting historical images, contacting tribal members for photos and finding singers for traditional songs.

Real Bird said some people were shy about being photographed. Still, those working toward the app were able to photograph Joseph Medicine Crow and Ruth Back Bone Alden, the last Crow woman to dress traditionally every day. She was photographed in September 2014, three months before her death. Photos of Albert Gros-Ventre Sr. and his 12-year-old son Albert Gros-Ventre Jr. illustrate phrases about fathers and sons. 

The app was released in January 2015, and Real Bird credited the tribe's vice chairman, Dana Wilson, with helping push the project forward. 

Since its initial release in the Apple App Store, Wilson said the app has been downloaded 2,000 times, and an additional 600 times after a later version was released in the Google Play store for Android apps.

Gros-Ventre Sr. said being in the app was an honor.

"I couldn't be any more proud to be who I am as far as being Native and being Crow," he said.

Fluent in the language, Gros-Ventre Sr. said he owes his knowledge to his grandmother, who raised him. She spoke fluent Crow. 

Gros-Ventre Sr. said the tribe benefits when the adults teach children the language.

"If we preserve that, everything else is still intact — our cultural ways, our ceremonies," Gros-Ventre Sr. said.  

He said the app is also valuable in teaching non-Natives the Crow language.

"Just a simple greeting, a simple 'thank you,' a simple 'Oh, have a good day, I'll see you later,'" Gros-Ventre Sr. said. "That communication between a non-Indian and a Crow speaker brings us that much closer." 

Gros-Ventre Jr. mostly goes by the nickname Shikaakkaate, meaning "Little Boy." He uses the app to listen to the tribe's flag song, sung by tribal chairman Darrin Old Coyote, or for pronunciation help. Gros-Ventre Jr. has also used the app to teach his non-Crow-speaking relatives when they visit his home near Lodge Grass.

"They'll go on the app and they'll practice different numbers, colors, animals," Gros-Ventre Sr said. "The kids really seem to take to learning."

'Gets to my heart'

Real Bird and Wilson hope their efforts will encourage more of the tribe's nearly 14,000 members to download the app. In addition to hosting Crow Language Nights, they are planning a Crow Language Summit in March.

A more low-tech effort involves printing and distributing signs that say "Crow Language Spoken Here." In 2015, Real Bird helped produce a CD of traditional Crow lullabies sung by Janice Wilson and accompanied by a book with lyrics in English and Crow. 

At a recent Crow Language Night, activities began with a quiet Crow prayer.

Then Real Bird launched into Crow as she described that night's activity. 

Fourteen men, women and children looked at printed questions taped to the walls.

Why do you want to go? What are you going to see? Where are you right now? Can I go with you?

Real Bird recited them in Crow, gesturing in the Crow sign language. The group responded with varying degrees of confidence as Real Bird offered answers.

There was laughter as repetition gave way to recognition.

Real Bird believes the language offers more than words, phrases and songs. 

"When I was in college there were times I would fall back on my language and my culture in a world that's pretty — as a young person — pretty frightening," Real Bird said. " ... The language is what gives you the identity, and now our kids are walking around with no identity.

"It gives me a real feeling of thankfulness that there were these people that prayed for me in this language. They sang songs in this language. It just gets to my heart. It just makes me feel good." 

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.