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Language is so bound up in culture that the loss of American Indian languages is a loss of an important part of their speakers' identities.

Linguists working to preserve the Siouan family of Indian languages will meet in Billings on the Rocky Mountain College campus Friday through Sunday.

The Rev. Randolph Graczyk, pastor of St. Charles Parish in Pryor and a linguist, is organizing the annual meeting of the Siouan and Caddoan Language Conference.

Fifteen to 20 people are expected, and many of them are university and college professors and graduate students. Several members of the Crow Tribe will attend, including Lanny Real Bird, who teaches the Crow language at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.

Linguists will present reports on technical research during the meeting, Graczyk said.

On Saturday, the group will travel to Little Big Horn College and visit the reservation.

When Graczyk came to the Crow Reservation in 1970, nearly all residents spoke the Crow language.

"To be more effective, I decided to learn the language," he said.

Realizing that he needed more training, he took time off in the 1980s to get a Ph.D. in linguistics with an emphasis on the Crow language at the University of Chicago. He doesn't consider himself to be fluent in Crow, but can understand and speak it.

During Sunday Mass at St. Charles, he reads a Bible passage in Crow.

Parishioners have told Graczyk that hearing the Bible reading in Crow, even though they are fluent in English, has a profound meaning for them.

Although most adults on the reservation still speak Crow, fewer children do, Graczyk said.

There are many reasons for that, including the pervasiveness of English on television and among children's peers.

To reverse that trend, Crow is taught in reservation schools. Among Northern Plains Indian tribes, Crow has endured better than most tribal languages.

Some linguists coming to the Billings meeting work with languages that only have a handful of speakers left. In those cases, linguists want to preserve as much of the language as possible.

Others are working to strengthen a language by creating teaching materials for classrooms.

Crow reflects its culture, as other American Indian languages do.

For example, the Crow language technically does not have a word for "cousin," Graczyk said. Your mother's sister's children are called brother or sister. Your father's sister's children are considered clan aunts and uncles, although that's an over-simplification of the concept expressed in the language.

If Indian languages are struggling to survive, interest in them is growing in the United States and in other countries.

One linguist, who works with the Lakota language, is coming to Billings from England. Another, who is researching the Winnebago language, is from Germany.

Siouan is a family of about 20 languages that are descendent from Proto-Siouan that dates back 3,000 to 4,000 years. Siouan includes the Crow and Lakota languages.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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