I am only half Northern Cheyenne (from my mother), the other half is Vihio or white, the spider people (from my Irish father). I did not know my tribal name Heevees’a (Teeth Woman) name until I was 15 years old. I learned its history and legacy in my 20’s and finally, at 56, how to correctly write it.

Still, I am more fortunate than many Native people. Like contemporary Natives, I was only occasionally exposed to the Cheyenne language from my grandmother.

“You speak English,” she admonished. “It will be easier and better for you.” (Boarding school advice.)

At a young age I married into a traditional family where the Cheyenne language was coin. Living with in-laws who spoke only Cheyenne and the traditional sign language, I experienced the “immersion” method of language acquisition – sinking or swimming by learning functional phrases to get by.

At one time, Cheyenne was the primary conversational language on our reservation. Yet, in the short span of two decades, the daily use of Cheyenne is rapidly going by the wayside. According to Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College who also teaches Cheyenne reading and writing classes, less than 50 tribal members are proficient in those skills. Another 400 or so are fluent daily speakers, but we are losing those elders at an alarming rate. Most young people are limited to single-word or abbreviated responses, which, when taken alone, are not conducive to Cheyenne conversation. These few fluent speakers, out of 10,000 Northern Cheyenne must now preserve the Cheyenne language conversationally. That is why we at Northern Cheyenne are engaged in a serious effort to revitalize the language.

That is why the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program is a wonderful development. In the last session, the Montana Legislature enacted that legislation, proposed by Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, of Rocky Boy (Chippewa Cree) and widely supported by Gov. Steve Bullock and a majority of the Legislature. They recognize that Native languages enrich Montana culture and also know that many Native languages are endangered. More importantly, the project provided grants of $250.000 to each of the eight Montana tribes for development of language preservation pilot projects. The results will hopefully convince the Legislature that a permanent program is necessary.

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We are equally encouraged that four U.S. Senators including Jon Tester of Montana  followed our state's lead by introducing legislation to create a National Native Language Preservation Program.

All Tribes must support passage of that act. We at Northern Cheyenne are not alone in the quest to preserve our language. Federal policy was one of the primary reasons for the loss of our Native languages.

Chief Dull Knife College is deeply committed to language preservation. Dr. Littlebear teaches a state-recognized Class 7 certification course for Cheyenne language instructors. They must learn to read and write the language. Burt Medicine Bull teaches the College Cheyenne language courses. The college also works with local schools, including Colstrip and with the college daycare center under the direction of Verda King, another certified language instructor.

For several years, the college has collaborated with A Cheyenne Voice newspaper to promote our language and all of the contributors use their traditional Cheyenne names.

Under MILPPP, Chief Dull Knife College and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe will undertake additional activities: developing computer apps for children and youth to be available to anyone with such connectivity; oral history stories from elders; research and an adult Cheyenne language immersion camp.

Other Montana Tribes will develop strategies that fit their situations. Let’s hope the collaboration between the tribal colleges; tribal and Montana governments produce tangible results to convince the state Legislature that the MILPPP should be a permanent program.

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Clara Caufield of Lame Deer is the publisher of A Cheyenne Voice newspaper and a columnist for several other papers.