Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 16, 2001 - Issue 38



Indian Leaders Worry About Losing Languages


 by Sabre Ayres Medill News Service

For all of his 29 years, Cody Ware has been speaking his tribe’s language. But he worries when he hears more English than Apsaalooke spoken in classrooms filled with young members of the Crow tribe.

Tribal leaders throughout Montana identify with Ware’s concern.

Ten years ago, more that 85 percent of school-age Crow spoke their tribal language. By 1995, that number had dropped to fewer than 25 percent, according to research from Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.

And the figures look worse for some of Montana’s other 11 tribal languages, according to research conducted by tribal educators. On the Fort Belknap Reservation, just 12 fluent speakers of the Gros Ventre language were found. On the Flathead Reservation, only five fluent speakers of Kootenai were counted.

For the past three years, seven of Montana’s tribal colleges have started to turn to fluent speakers like Ware to find ways to keep native languages from disappearing. Ware, who is studying to become an elementary teacher, is open to any idea that might engage more young Crow in their tribal language.

“I hate to say it, but kids watch a lot of Saturday morning cartoons,” Ware said. “If the Crow nation came up with a superhero cartoon, where the characters all spoke Crow, the kids could hear the language more.”

The seven colleges have combined their research on tribal languages and language teaching techniques and formed the Learning Lodge Institute through a four-year, $850,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Each summer, educators and students gather at a retreat and discuss different learning models, from one-on-one conversations with elders to Montessori methods.

The grant money will end in October, but Lanny Real Bird, the director of the program and a professor at Little Big Horn College, said he is trying to find more grants for the future. But money may not be enough to get young Indians to catch on to learning the language, he said.

“It’s going to take time, maybe 10 to 14 years, to establish a sound program to where language is being learned and classes are being taught at public schools,” Real Bird said.

Finding more funding for tribal colleges has been a challenge for all of the country’s 33 American Indian colleges. In May, several college presidents made a visit to Washington to urge an increase in the $3,800 given for each student to $4,500.

While this money would not directly affect the Learning Lodge Institute, more money could help Crow Indians, like Ware, to become teachers and return to the reservation.

Once he finishes his studies at Little Big Horn, Ware said, he will begin a master’s education program at Montana State University-Billings. When he returns to teach on the reservation, he will teach in Crow, he said.

“We need to save (the language),” Ware said. “We need to encourage the kids to speak it.”

Some of the money from Kellogg has been used by the language institute to record traditional songs and oral histories. The tapes are then used by tribal college language departments.

For the Crow language, the Kellogg grant funded a Crow Music and Dance video to supplement the Crow Studies Program. Little Big Horn College also has begun a inventory of traditional place names of the Crow Nation.

This summer, the institute will hold its annual retreat in July at Burgess Junction, Wyo. In addition, Little Big Horn College will hold several classes for students to move from a basic understanding of tribal languages to speaking them fluently.

For Crescentia Cummings, a 23 year-old land resources student at the college, keeping the language alive is an important part of her culture, she said.

Cummings said she grew up in a traditional family, where learning Crow was easy because everyone at home was speaking it.

But when she got to school, some non-Crow speakers would mock those using the native language, she said.

Despite the peer pressure, Cummings said, eight of 10 close friends still speak Crow as their first language and she is now teaching her 3-year-old son to speak Crow.

“If we go without our language, we wouldn’t be unique. We wouldn’t be our own people,” Cummings said.



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