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Teachers hope to stir life into Crow language
Marcia Blacksmith holds her three-week-old son, Calvin, as she prepares to dance during the Indian Education conference taking place at MSU-B Tuesday afternoon.

When Raphaelle Real Bird started working in schools on the Crow Reservation, she said all the children spoke Crow, and there wasn't a need for Crow language classes.

Now, 25 years later, she's teaching the Crow language at the high school in Lodge Grass and says she rarely meets a child who is fluent in the language.

Little Bighorn College instructor Lanny Real Bird introduced educators to teaching materials during the Indian Education for All Institute on Tuesday that he hopes will make teaching the Crow language easier, at home or school.

Providing resources

The two-day institute was held at Montana State University-Billings and was aimed at providing both Indian and non-Indian educators with resources to boost success for Native American children and instruct all students in the history of Montana's Native American tribes and the contemporary issues they face.

Lanny Real Bird, a business teacher, and his students developed a teaching manual, a set of flash cards and a DVD that includes the written English words, Crow pronunciations and demonstrations of the words in Plains Indian Sign Language. By mid-July, he expects to expand the materials to include 200 more words. The DVD also has conjugations of most of the verbs in the Crow language.

In the preservation of the Crow culture, teaching the children their language is key, Lanny Real Bird said. About half of the 12,000 Crow tribal members speak the language.

Reinforcing Crow language

The Crow language is taught in all the Crow Reservation school districts as well as in Hardin and Busby. However, Real Bird said language instruction needs to be reinforced and integrated into as many grade levels and courses as possible.

Coty Good Luck, a language arts teacher at Lodge Grass Middle School, uses the Crow language in all her lessons to reinforce native language skills. She estimates that about 20 percent of the students at the school are fluent in the Crow language.

"They're mainly English speakers by the time they reach the school system," she added.

While many of the students aren't speakers of the Crow language, Good Luck said about eight out of 10 of her students have had enough exposure to the language to understand it.

The challenge facing educators on the Crow Reservation is to turn students who understand the language into fluent speakers.

Lanny Real Bird said teachers need to create an environment where students can make mistakes and gain confidence as they learn the language. Over generations, Crow speakers have lost confidence in their ability to speak their language, he said. As a result, children and, at times, their teachers are reluctant to use Crow in conversation.

"People have been belittled, ridiculed and embarrassed for speaking Crow," Lanny Real Bird said. "That's why psychologically it's important we don't put them on the spot."

He said the easy-to-use materials can be used for all ages from preschool to postsecondary education and that teachers can gain confidence in their own skills as they teach students. Parents can also use the materials at home to teach their children Crow and learn it themselves, he said.

Lanny Real Bird's materials focus on speaking conversational Crow language.

"It's not meant to be too institutional," he said. "All I'm trying to do is develop materials that can be used to reinforce (the language)."

In addition to the Crow language curriculum, which Real Bird said will cost about $25, DVDs are also available that introduce teachers to Crow culture and effective teaching methods for Crow children. The production was recognized by the Southern California Motion Picture Association, and another video, also produced by Real Bird's students, provides Crow Indians with methods of developing resiliency in living off the reservation and returning to the reservation afterward.

Real Bird said he hopes the teaching materials can be introduced in public schools off the reservation or in after-school study groups for Crow children living in urban areas.

Contact Laura Tode at ltode@billingsgazette.com or 657-1392.

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