There’s a big difference between being able to speak the Crow language and being able to teach it. But, for a language used by a dwindling number of people in the roughly 13,000 member tribe, there aren’t many teaching resources.
The Crow Summer Institute helps fill that void.
“I’ve learned more from this than I have from anything else,” said Roanne Hill, a Crow language and culture teacher at St. Labre High School. “The techniques that we use here, I feel like are much more efficient.”
The institute, organized by the Crow Language Consortium, Little Bighorn College and The Language Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to save endangered languages, is in its fourth year.
Hill grew up speaking Crow and didn’t learn English until age 5. That’s not typical for today’s Crow youth; a 2012 study commissioned by the tribe showed that only 3 percent of preschoolers were fluent, while 14 percent had limited fluency.
Tylis Bad Bear is a success story, both for language learners and the institute. He wasn’t taught Crow at a young age, but learned the language over time and felt comfortable speaking it more by eighth grade. He graduated from Hardin High School in 2011.
A student of previous years’ institutes, he was tabbed to teach an intensive beginner’s Crow language class being offered for the first time this year. He previously taught at St. Labre’s immersion preschool and taught Crow language at Crow Agency Elementary.
“We don’t have all the English letters,” he told his class Wednesday morning. But the Crow Language does have additional vowels like Uu and Oo.
Which version of a noun is used is often dictated by whether it’s describing a relationship with a person. There are masculine and feminine versions, and changes for situations.
For example, “Dasaake” describes a girl’s dad, as spoken by a third party. “Diluupxe” is a boy’s father in the same tense. “Basaake” is my dad, as spoken by a female, while “biluupxe” is my dad, as spoken by a male. To address their father, a female says “basaakaa.” A male says “axxe.”
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“It depends on what kind of context you’re using,” Bad Bear said.
At one point, a Native American student asked why she doesn’t hear people using the formal address tense.
“It’s because nobody’s speaking Crow,” Bad Bear said. “That’s why we don’t hear it.”
A patient and accepting approach to teaching is crucial, he said. For a while, Crow Indians who didn’t speak Crow faced a “shaming” approach by language teachers.
“We damaged a good-sized generation by saying, ‘You should know this. If you’re a Crow, you should already know this,’” he said. “It’s all about teaching, not preaching.”
The institute began at Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, but moved to Little Big Horn College last year.
“Many (teachers) came through school when (Crow) wasn’t part of the curriculum,” said Janine Pease, an instructor and administrator at Little Bighorn College. “They are here to sharpen their skills. They’re almost all teaching multiple grades.”
Participants also help record audio for a new Crow app, and the Language Conservancy is working to adapt materials used to teach Lakota for teaching Crow.
With the growth of immersion preschools has come greater demand for speakers of Native languages, especially those with teacher training.
“I didn’t think learning the language in third and fourth-grade would put me here, teaching this language,” Bad Bear said.