Littlebear and others of his generation may be the last ones to joke
in the Cheyenne language. The last ones to pray in it, to use it to
Littlebear, 61, is one of the 2,000 or
so of the 5,000-member tribe who can still speak their native tongue.
In just three decades, a language that has existed for centuries
And with it would vanish ways of knowing
about the land and spirituality, says Littlebear, an educator who
is trying to reverse the demise.
"The only way [people] can express
themselves culturally and individually is through their language,"
says Littlebear, president of the tribally controlled Chief Dull
Knife College in Lame Deer, Mont. "You're hitting at the base
of a person's existence and identity."
Littlebear will explain what it's like
to lose a language at the Salt Palace Convention Center as part
of an international conference for teachers of English as a Second
Language. About 7,000 educators are in Salt Lake City to find ways
to better teach the language.
But while they focus on English, Littlebear
and others hope teachers won't forget the importance of students'
The sentiment flies in the face of recent
movements to emphasize English. Take Utah's mostly symbolic law
requiring that official government business be done in English,
or the push in some states to quickly move students into English-only
But in Littlebear's school, as well as
some Utah classrooms, educators are teaching students their native
languages, believing that knowledge will not only help children
better learn English, but also help them be more well-adjusted.
For instance, a couple of schools in Salt
Lake City offer bilingual elementary classes, and at least one middle
school offers a Spanish class for native speakers.
In the San Juan District, where the majority
of students are American Indian, Navajo students must study that
language in elementary school for an hour and a half a every day.
Junior high and high school students who aren't proficient in English
must take Navajo classes along with English.
Through the district's 5-year-old "heritage
language program," students learn their language and culture
is an asset.
"You become proud of who you are,"
says Clayton Long, bilingual program director for the San Juan District.
"English is also important. One is not more important than
Littlebear didn't know that as a youngster
attending a government-run school. There, he was banned from speaking
Cheyenne. He majored in English as an undergraduate "under
the mistaken notion it was superior. That was ground into me while
going to school at the reservation. Preachers, teachers, merchants
-- they spoke English and were obviously people of power."
Today, Littlebear is of a different mind.
Though he doesn't want to bash English, he has written that English
is "a voracious language . . . that gobbles up everything in
It wasn't until he was 40 that Littlebear
learned to read and write Cheyenne.
Now he's promoting those skills, hosting
a language immersion program every summer for kids, and a Cheyenne
language and culture program for teachers.
"My vision is that Cheyenne will
be spoken forever," he says, noting he must act quickly. Most
of the current speakers are 35 and older. He estimates the language
could be lost by 2036.
Oddly, some adults have resisted his quest,
asking why he wants to teach "this language we were denied."
Some parents have wanted their children to speak only English.
But those students struggle too, he notes,
because they don't know it well enough, hearing Cheyenne at home
and barely learning English in school.
"They're in a sea of sound, but they
don't have the adequate linguistic anchor in either one of the two
languages," he says.
Preserving American Indian languages can
help other Americans, too, he says.
"Native languages that have spirituality
imbedded in them, they could become the conscience of America,"
he says while looking out his hotel window over the sprawling development
in the Salt Lake Valley.
He notes how the United States government
wants to drill the earth for oil, when it might look to less destructive
means. "You've got to think differently about these things."