-- Thirteen-year-old Jesse Des Rosier is the picture of confidence
as he calls out commands in Blackfeet.
He orders classmates to draw a picture
of their school on the grease board, to pick up a toy truck from
an assortment of items on the floor, to shake his hand.
A lanky teen-ager with long black braids,
a mouthful of braces and a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, Jesse is the
face of a renaissance in Indian Country.
He and his 30-some classmates at the Nizipuhwahsin
Center, a private school on the Blackfeet Reservation, take all
of their classes in their native language. From math to biology
they study in "Piegan," the Blackfeet's original, or "nizipuhwahsin,"
Their teachers want to produce the first
new generation of Piegan speakers in decades. Jesse and his peers
are the Blackfeet's best hope to save their fading language, of
which only roughly 500 fluent, mostly elderly speakers remain.
"The greatest thing about this school
is that my children, including all the kids at the Nizipuhwahsin
Center, are bringing the language into the next century," said
Jesse's mother, Joycelyn Des Rosier. "Now it won't die."
The Nizipuhwahsin Center was founded in
1995 in Browning as a "language immersion" pre-school
program. It has since added a second, $500,000 complex. Three sunny
classrooms house preschool, elementary and middle school programs.
Jane Fonda gave the first $100,000 for the new building, finished
Tuition is moderate for a private school
at $100 a month. About 20 percent of the students are on scholarship.
The curriculum is unconventional.
There are no grade levels and students
often don't start writing until they're 7 or 8 years old.
English grammar lessons don't start until
age 11 or so.
"It does rattle parents when they
worry that children aren't receiving formal reading," said
Darrell Robes Kipp, executive director of the Piegan Institute,
the Blackfeet language preservation group that founded Nizipuhwahsin.
The school's philosophy is rooted in research
showing that children educated in two languages perform better in
school than those who speak only one.
"You take something as old as your
language and you couple it with a high academic system and you produce
these extremely healthy children," Kipp said.
In Hawaii's footsteps
On a cold, sunny morning, Shirlee Crow
Shoe's classroom smells faintly of sweet grass, a plant dried and
burned in Native American blessing, or "smudging" ceremonies.
Crow Shoe, 48, quizzes her elementary-age
class on the days of January in Piegan. Later, she moves on to shapes,
asking the students to name circles, triangles and rectangles --
"isinapimoyi" -- in Piegan.
"Oh, man!" a boy stumped on
a question says under his breath. English is not allowed here.
Nizipuhwahsin is modeled after a language
"nest" school started on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai.
At that time, fewer than 50 children under the age of 18 were fluent
Today the "Aha Punana Leo" organization
operates nest preschools across the islands in addition to three
K-12 schools. The program graduated its first K-12 class in 1999.
Roughly 2,000 Hawaiian kids attend "Aha Punana Leo" schools
or similar language immersion centers established in cooperation
with the state.
Kipp, a 57-year-old Harvard graduate and
former technical writer, helped found the Nizipuhwahsin Center after
visiting Hawaii with a group of 35 Blackfeet.
"They were the ones that really illustrated
the impacts of language revitalization among indigenous people,"
Hawaiians who know their language can
"go out in the world and know who they are," said Niniau
Kawaihae, outreach coordinator for the College of Hawaiian Language
at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. "They're not searching for
their roots and searching for something to satisfy them internally."
Kawaihae was hired last September, under
a grant from the Ford Foundation, to coordinate tours of the college
and the "Aha Punana Leo" schools. So many curious tribal
groups and journalists from the mainland were visiting that professors
couldn't tend to their work.
Sink or swim
There's no magic to the immersion language
school method, Kawaihae said. Classes are simply taught in Hawaiian:
"It's either sink or swim."
Rainy Kipp, a distant relative of Darrell
Kipp's, is one of Nizipuhwahsin's three eighth-grade graduates.
A fourth will graduate this spring. She started treading water in
Piegan during her first few weeks at the Nizipuhwahsin school when
she was 12 years old. A teacher encouraged her to write down the
words she could understand each day and helped her fill in the blanks.
Students practice through the "total
physical response" method, meaning they act out Piegan phrases
as they learn them. Classes are multi-age so that older or more
experienced students can pull younger kids or new students along.
"Everybody treated everybody with
respect and the teachers and everything," Kipp said of her
years at Nizipuhwahsin. "There was no talking back."
Now 15, Kipp is in the ninth grade at
Heart Butte High School where she made the honor roll last fall.
A ranch girl at heart, she plans to become a veterinarian.
"I miss (Nizipuhwahsin) a lot,"
she said. "I wish I could go back."
Nizipuhwahsin's three teachers learned
Piegan as their first language.
Ed Little Plume, 65, is a Nizipuhwahsin
founder and master teacher. A lifelong rancher, he's considered
one of the reservation's most fluent Piegan speakers. He is state
certified to teach Piegan.
Arthur West Wolf, 47, worked 15 years
as a teacher's aid in the Browning Public Schools. He recently earned
his teaching degree from the University of Great Falls and also
is state certified.
Crow Shoe is a member of the North Peigan
Tribe of Blackfoot in Canada, which is spelled differently than
the language and the institute in the United States. She taught
her language for 15 years in the Canadian public school system before
moving to Browning.
She remembers her grandmother telling
bedtime stories in her native language.
"I knew when my grandmother was falling
asleep because she would say something wrong and I'd tell her, 'No
Grandmother, you're telling it wrong.'"
Growing up on the North Peigan Reserve,
Crow Shoe never imagined that she would one day have to teach her
language and culture -- knowledge she soaked up at her grandmother's
side -- in a classroom.
"I always took it for granted that
what I knew, everyone else knew," she said.
Crow Shoe met Darrell Kipp and learned
of the Nizipuhwahsin effort at a 1995 powwow in Browning.
"He only gave us one directive and
that directive was teach the Blackfeet language," she said.
School days at Nizipuhwahsin are hard,
Jesse Des Rosier said. Piegan is complex and descriptive. As in
many languages, verbs need declension. The Blackfeet kinship system
includes a rich system of names for family members.
Jesse calls Michael "Neskun,"
the Piegan term an older brother calls his younger brother. Michael
calls Jesse "Nissa," meaning older brother.
Objects summed up with one noun in the
English language may require a short phrase in Piegan. Especially
new words such as "radio," described in Piegan as "spirits
that tell you the news," Des Rosier explains.
First attracted to the school's flag football
team, Des Rosier said he's learned important lessons here about
respect for elders.
"I like learning about our history,"
he added. "But sometimes I get mad." History, which has
included some brutal chapters for the Blackfeet in the last century,
is an important part of the curriculum, Kipp said.
"We want these children to be knowledgeable
about themselves, their family histories, their tribal histories,"
Joycelyn Des Rosier admits she had concerns
about Nizipuhwahsin's non-traditional curriculum.
"I used to worry, 'Oh my God, my
kids are going to be so behind, they're never going to know anything,'"
Her worries eased last fall when she saw
Rainy Kipp's success at Heart Butte High School.
Though students start formal English lessons
later at Nizipuhwahsin, they learn fast because they're already
familiar with the grammatical structures of two languages, Darrell
By sixth grade, students study geometry,
algebra and botany in Piegan.
The new speakers
But the school is about more than academics.
"We know how important our language
is as a people," said Helen Horn, whose 10-year-old son, Keith,
attends Nizipuhwahsin. "If we lose that, we lose our identity
and what makes us different from every other Native American. Our
culture, our, traditions -- everything -- our history, it's all
in our language."
With that identity comes confidence that
helps kids avoid the drugs, early dropout rates and teen pregnancies
that often snare children on the reservation, Kipp said.
Horn took two Piegan classes at the local
community college so she can speak with her kids at home.
"I didn't know what my kids were
saying sometimes," she said. "They'd all be talking to
me at once in Blackfeet."
But she pulled her two daughters, Larissa,
8, and Shanell, 6, out of Nizipuhwahsin for this school year. Shanell
wanted to go to kindergarten like a neighbor girl, and Larissa decided
to go to public school with her, Horn said.
Larissa started second grade last fall
at a kindergarten reading level, but tested at second-grade level
for the first time last week.
"She's in the top part of her class
now," Horn said. "She's really come a long ways and I
credit a lot of that to teaching them in the immersion school that
there's no barriers to what they can learn."
For Nizipuhwahsin to succeed in saving
the language, the students must succeed in their own lives, the
"One of the ways to revitalize a
language is to put status into it," Darrell Kipp said. "Any
Blackfeet who will be able to speak our language fluently in 2005
will be indeed an outstanding and respected individual because it
will be very rare to find such an individual."
Most fluent Piegan speakers are in their
"For all purposes at this stage they're
homebound," Kipp said. "It's a real special occasion when
they come out to a tribal ceremony or something. They're highly
Already, Nizipuhwahsin students are being
asked to pray or give introductions at tribal ceremonies.
"These children ... in the next three
or four years as they achieve adult status, even very young adult
status, they're the ones that are going to be asked to get up and
do these things," Kipp said.
Not a government nickel
The school plans to some day offer a high
school program, but the upper grades are extremely expensive to
develop, Kipp said.
Nizipuhwahsin has cost $2.8 million since
it started seven years ago.
"There's not a government nickel
in this place," Kipp said. The Lannan Foundation, a private
family foundation from Santa Fe, N.M., contributed close to $1.7
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Howard
Terpning, a Western artist, also are major sponsors.
The Piegan Institute recently established
an endowment fund to support the school. So far they've raised $100,000.
The goal is $2 million over the next two years.
It's a long-term investment.
Even in Hawaii, where language immersion
schools are nearly 20 years old, it's too early to say the language
is saved. The nest schools' oldest graduates are 21. They will need
to raise their own families in Hawaiian-speaking homes before the
language takes permanent root.
"We don't have measurable results,"
said Aha Punana Leo spokeswoman Luahiwa Namahoe. "We're still
running on faith until the majority of the (students') parents are
Ultimately, success won't be measured
in the classroom.
"The best way to measure it is to
see kids playing dodge ball in Hawaiian. To see people arguing in
Hawaiian or cracking jokes in Hawaiian," Namahoe said.
Time will tell
Jesse and Michael Des Rosier are teaching
their parents Piegan at home. "It's really fun traveling down
the road and we know all these towns now in our own language,"
their mother said.
Kipp is counting on students like Jesse
and Michael to return to the reservation one day to run the Nizipuhwahsin
"Time will tell the effectiveness
of this model," he said.
Kipp views the Piegan language as an endangered
species. In the same way plants in the rainforest may carry cures
to diseases, the language carries lessons and history that could
be lost forever.
"Languages, just like other species,
carry some secrets in them that we don't know about," Kipp
said. "Inside the language are all the secrets of our tribe."