Four tribal college presidents say their institutions are trying new methods to preserve — maybe even expand — the number of people who can read, write or speak their tribal language.
The four presidents — David Yarlott of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Richard Littlebear of Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Carole Falcon-Chandler of Aaniiih Nakoda College in Harlem and Haven Gourneau of Fort Peck Community College in Poplar — spoke in Billings Friday as part of City College’s Tribal Language Symposium.
As part of its 2018 summertime language institute, Little Big Horn College decided to compile an Apsáalooke dictionary. Yarlott said he hoped they’d gather definitions for 10,000 words. Instead, they came up with nearly 14,000.
“I consider myself a fluent speaker, but they came up with many words I don’t know,” he said. Recent inventions can require creativity among modern linguists. The Apsáalooke word for vehicle, he said, can be translated as “goes by itself.”
A recent survey shows only about 15 percent of Crow children speak the language. “That’s pretty alarming,” he said, and in response Little Big Horn College received a grant for a language immersion program for kindergartners and first-graders.
Littlebear said his Cheyenne language “is who I am … and the language I speak is extremely endangered.” An informal survey taken three years ago indicated the tribe of nearly 11,000 members had 566 first speakers of the Cheyenne language. Three years later, that number had shrunk by more than 100.
“We are trying to stem the tide, but some of it is unavoidable,” he said. “Natural mortality is something we can’t help.”
During the 1990s, Littlebear found himself working in Alaska. Inside the elevator in the building where he worked, “you heard nothing but Alaska Native languages, even from the little ones.”
When he returned about 15 years later and rode the same elevator, “everyone was speaking English, even the little ones.” It occurred to Littlebear that in Alaska, he was perhaps the only Cheyenne language speaker for up to 3,000 miles. “I thought, ‘This must be how it feels to be the last speaker.’”
It was there he learned to read and write the language, “and I’d talk to myself in Cheyenne — with no one to dispute me. I must say, I had very intelligent conversation," he said to laughter.
Gourneau said faculty and administrators at Fort Peck Community College “are tasked with revitalizing” Sioux and Assiniboine languages, “because language is how we know who we are.”
Five students from each tribe are now in an immersive language program with the goal that they’ll soon be able to teach other students.
Those students agree “to live the life,” she said. They all pledge to be drug and alcohol free. “They dance and sing, and they live the traditional life. This has been our most successful try at revitalizing the language,” she said.
Falcon-Chandler said Gros Ventre and Assiniboine students who speak those languages enjoy greater self-esteem.
“When you feel good, you do well,” she said.
The White Clay Immersion School at Aaniiih Nakoda College, begun 15 years ago as an after-school program for first-graders, has grown to a two-classroom campus program.
Most of the college's faculty are non-Native, but many have learned to introduce themselves to new students at orientation using a tribal language.
“They do a good job of that,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes non-Indians do a better job than our Indian staff.”
“We do that,” she added, “because we all belong.”
After each speaker had presented, Florence Garcia, associate dean at City College as well as Montana State University Billings’ Native American student success services coordinator, said she hopes Friday’s inaugural symposium “proves we are good neighbors.”
“We don’t want to be the kind of neighbor who rolls her eyes when a lot of family members visit,” she said. “We want to be the kind of neighbors who will build a community together to provide good, safe lives for our children and grandchildren.”