Beneath the shade of a large tent, 29 Crow teenagers repeat Lanny Real Bird's words, trying their best to match his pronunciation and corresponding hand signs.

They speak and sign them quickly: chi-sshiia (to return), baa-tchaa-chek (awesome), ku-maa-leek (I'm leaving), a-paa-le (to grow). The class rattles off more than 100 in succession, pausing throughout to laugh as they mix up words or fumble through a sign.

The teens, age 11 through 17, are practicing Apsaalooke, their tribe's language. None can speak it with fluency.

This is the third day of a weeklong language immersion camp hosted by the tribe. The campsite is set upon a hilly field near the Bighorn Canyon, where the sun emblazons red-rock cliffs and beats down on the children as they dance and play volleyball.

It's also a stone's throw from the site of an old intertribal skirmish, known to the Crow as the Grapevine Creek Battle, in which their warriors slaughtered a band of Blackfeet intruders looking to steal horses.

Organizers chose this spot for a reason. They want the campers to find a sense of pride in their heritage, and hopefully to appreciate their language as part of it.

While the number of adult Crow speakers remains high, leaders fear the language isn't being passed down to their children — the youngest of whom had a fluency rate of only 3 percent in a recent tribal study.

And if that happens, it could soon be lost altogether.

"Now we're fighting to keep our language," says Birdie Real Bird, cabinet head for the Crow Tribe education department. "It's a fight. It's a battle. We're battling against these people's — the Crow community's — choice of communication."

Many efforts

The camp is one of several tribal initiatives to preserve the Crow language. Many are tied to the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program, created last year by the state legislature, which gave $250,000 to each of Montana's eight tribal governments for the development of language preservation projects. Tribes must complete those projects by Sept. 15.

The Crow Nation is also benefiting from a three-year, $877,000 federal grant to incorporate immersion Crow language teaching into its Head Start preschool programs.

However, it's not just resources the tribe needs to help pass along Apsaalooke to the next generations of Crow, tribal educators say. They're also trying to convince fellow members that their native language is something Crow youth can, should and need to learn.

"Our language is in a state of emergency, and everyone is taking it lightly," Birdie Real Bird says. "Language is something that you have to be serious about."

Still matters

One challenge in addressing what Real Bird describes as complacency among tribal members is demonstrating to them that Apsaalooke is still relevant to their lives.

Members have told Real Bird they don't think learning Crow is a useful skill, while some people even believe teaching Crow to children can be detrimental or distracting to their other school work, she says.

Real Bird points to comments made by retired Hardin School District Superintendent Al Peterson, who was quoted in the Big Horn County News last year as saying preschool students in Crow immersion classrooms may have a poorer grasp of language skills upon entering kindergarten.

And one tribal member with whom Real Bird has spoken sees emphasis on language preservation as a kind of Colonialism in reverse. He said he resents that the Crow people were "first told to speak English, then forced to speak English, and now are being 'forced' to speak Crow," she says.

Real Bird, who was an educator for 31 years before recently becoming the cabinet head, is incredulous toward such views. "The Crow language is in my heart. It's me as a person," she says. "I can't abandon it; I can't abandon me."

"The children, I don't want them to say, 'I'm a Crow,' without knowing the language, knowing their ancestors," she adds.

But Lanny Real Bird, who is a professor at Little Big Horn College, says tribal youth are increasingly "bombarded with the message that it's not hip to be Crow."

He has been developing learning materials such as CDs and flashcards for Apsaalooke and other Plains languages and is trying to champion the immersion technique for native language acquisition, which he says makes the process fun for students and builds confidence.

He says the western academic approach, with its focus on textbooks and verb tenses, hasn't been effective at producing native speakers, while immersion learning meets the students where they are. That's often at "ground zero" and with students who are self-conscious about trying to speak their language, he says.

'A friendly place'

At the immersion camp, Real Bird has the students look at one another when they practice their speaking. They learn verbs, short phrases and statements, which are introduced as part of scripted conversations. Mistakes are embraced, not corrected.

Over time, Real Bird says, the students will come to hone their grammar and pronunciation. The point is to make Apsaalooke a functional part of their lives, a language they can speak.

"I'm trying to teach them this to where the Crow language is a friendly place to be," he says.

Students were shy for the first two days of camp, he says. But by Wednesday they were laughing in near unison at their teacher's jokes and their collective mistakes. The students have been introduced to nearly 150 words or phrases and the accompanying hand sign so far.

Pairing Crow words with the movements of Plains Indian sign language is an educational technique to engage students and help them retain what they've learned, he says. Real Bird estimates that if students were able to study Crow in this way for a couple hours each day, they could become conversational in about a month.

In the evening during the camp, each student takes the microphone to answer a question in Crow, explains Dyanna Wilson, who is overseeing the tribe's programming under the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program.

The experience can be uncomfortable for the children, Wilson says. But organizers want them to think, "That's your language. Be proud of it, treat it like it's yours."

Not just words

To that end, the camp also includes a variety of cultural activities. On Wednesday, the boys learn to make arrows while the girls sew leather moccasins. Later, they would perform a smudging ceremony with the moccasins before reenacting the Grapevine Creek Battle. 

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By presenting history and culture alongside language lessons, Wilson hopes young people will take their language to heart. She is troubled about its declining use among tribal youth.

"It really, you know, kind of crushes me," she says. "I think about it every day. It's so scary."

The trend is perplexing to Wilson. Young members' first words are in Crow, as Crow adults frequently speak it at home, she notes.


Camper Megan He Crow, 17, can relate. He Crow has learned some phrases from her family and took the semester course offered in junior high, but she isn't yet fluent.

"I can understand them," she says of her parents, "I just can't speak it back."

Speaking of young members' grasp of their language, Wilson points a finger to her head. "It's here," she says, "But it's not here," she adds, gesturing to her mouth. "There's a gap there somewhere. I'm trying to figure out how to make it flow."

She's betting in part on technology as a way to bridge the gap. The tribe's other pilot projects utilize technology to make Apsaalooke accessible to tribal youth, who Wilson notes increasingly spend time online instead of conversing with parents or grandparents.

The tribe is contracting with a company to develop Apsaalooke language learning software similar to Rosetta Stone, Wilson says. Like some other tribes in the state, such as the Blackfeet, Crow Nation is assembling a website that will serve as a digital hub for language and cultural resources.

Additionally, Wilson will use posters to distribute results of a language fluency survey conducted through the program to raise awareness of the decline.

Crow youth aren't entirely disconnected, but are perhaps distracted, from their culture, Wilson says, though she notes that every person forms their racial identity individually. 

Sitting next to a yellow school bus, shielded from the hot sun, Wilson explains that the immersion camp — through the reenactment, activities and Apsaalooke lessons — is trying to knit together the Crow's land, culture and language.

"We're just thankful that this is ours, and we're connected to the land," she says. "If our kids could have a grasp of who they are, where they come from and why, they'll be able to fit in this world."

He Crow is now a junior in high school and says she wants to eventually become a nurse on one of the state's reservations. She wants to learn Crow for personal reasons, so she can speak it with elders and family members and "keep the language going."

After this camp, her planned course of study is simple.

"Tell my mom to keep speaking Crow to me," she says.

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10 words in Crow

Listen to Lanny Real Bird pronounce these Crow words and phrases online at billingsgazette.com

English Apsaalooke
yes eeh
no baa-lee-taa
good it-chiik
bad xa-wiik
come huua
go dee
I understand eh-wish-chek
I don't understand baala-x-tuk
sit a-waa-che
stand di-luaa