ancient languages of Montana's tribes are remembered by only a dwindling
number of elders. But a new urgency to save them has emerged, and
an unlikely marriage of tradition and modern technology may be the
Selena Ditmar was a freshman in 1942 when
government workers arrived at her high school on the Fort Belknap
Indian Reservation to pass out war ration stamps.
Many of the elderly who came for tickets
to buy sugar, lard and other scarce items spoke only Assiniboine.
Confounded, the workers asked around the school for someone who
"Because everyone was ashamed, nobody
wanted to admit they spoke the language," recalls Ditmar, a
74-year-old retired nurse who sweeps her salt-and-pepper hair into
an elegant bun. Though she finally came forward, she admits she,
too, was reluctant to speak in front of the strangers.
Decades later, Ditmar is stepping forward
again -- this time with pride -- in a desperate attempt to teach
her language before it's too late.
Barely a century after missionaries and
teachers at government boarding schools rapped Indian children's
knuckles for speaking their native tongue, all 11 of Montana's Indian
languages are in moderate to imminent danger of extinction.
Afraid their identity will die with the
languages of their prayers -- Piegan, Cree, White Clay, Nakoda --
Montana tribes are in step with a national movement to rescue their
traditional voices, this time with the blessing of the U.S. government.
From Salish speakers on the Flathead Reservation
to the Sioux of Fort Peck, they're enlisting the memories of tribal
elders and the power of digital computer technology to introduce
Indian children to their native tongue.
"Now there's a hunger for it on all
reservations," said Moses Spear Chief, Piegan language coordinator
for the Browning Public School District on the Blackfeet Reservation.
"They want it so bad. The young adults want to know it because
they didn't get a chance to speak it when they were younger and
they want their kids to speak it, too.
"If it's gone then their culture
is gone ... Without the language, values are lost, your sense of
belonging is gone."
Time is running out. Ditmar teaches Nakoda
at the Fort Belknap Community College on northern Montana's windy
prairie. She knows of only 30 or so fluent Nakoda speakers on her
reservation. She talks to herself in the car just to keep up her
Fort Belknap's other language, Gros Ventre,
or "White Clay," slipped to roughly a dozen speakers when
81-year-old Madeline Colliflower, a respected elder, died two years
ago. Only three or four them are truly fluent, says 94-year-old
Theresa Walker Lamebull.
One survey identified only five Kootenai
speakers on the Flathead Reservation.
Some 500 to 600 Blackfeet speak the Piegan
language fluently. Darrell Robes Kipp is a founder of the Nizipuhwahsin
language immersion school on the Blackfeet Reservation, where 32
students, grades K-8, are learning reading, writing and arithmetic
in Piegan. But even he has surges of doubt about whether the language
"In my private moments I'm never
sure," he says, quickly adding, "We'll pull it off, but
I'll tell you, it's really tough."
Even a language with 500 speakers is a
"They say it takes 100,000 to make
a language stable," said Luahiwa Namahoe, spokeswoman for Hawaii's
"Aha Punana Leo" language immersion schools. The schools,
on which the Browning program is modeled, have pulled Hawaii's language
back from the brink: In 1983, fewer than 30 children younger than
18 were native speakers. Tribes from across the United States have
visited Hawaii to learn more about the program.
"We're now up to about 10,000 (speakers),"
Namahoe said. "We're not out of the woods yet."
Funding scaled back
In 1990, President George Bush signed the
Native American Languages Act, stating that the United States has
a responsibility to work with tribes to ensure the survival of their
unique cultures and languages.
"It was a milestone in terms of turning
around a longstanding philosophy direction in public education,"
But the younger Bush signed a reauthorization
of federal education programs in January, dubbed "No Child
Left Behind," that dramatically cuts funding for native language
programs in public schools.
Under the current federal program, Montana
received $3 million in K-12, bilingual education funding this school
year. Roughly $2 million of the funding paid for classroom instruction
in K-12 schools. That funded native language education on reservations
and English as a Second Language training elsewhere in the state.
The rest paid for native language teacher
Under the new funding formula, Montana
is projected to receive $500,000 for all programs.
"It will amount to a huge reduction
in what we've seen for bilingual programs for Native American students,"
said Joyce Silverthorne, head of the Tribal Education Department
on the Flathead Reservation and a member of the Montana Board of
Old scars remain
In Browning, meanwhile, Kipp still fights
the legacy of decades of government, church and school assimilation
policies bent on silencing native languages.
From an 1887 report by the Commissioner
of Indian Affairs, J.D.C. Atkins: "In the difference of language
today lies two-thirds of our trouble ... Schools should be established,
which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects
should be blotted out and the English language substituted."
James Crawford, a Washington-based writer
and expert on language and education policy, presented the quote
in a paper at the annual conference of the American Educational
Research Association in 1994.
Missionaries and the U.S. government established
the schools, and the languages were forbidden. By the turn of the
century, at least 80 percent of Indian children living on reservations
were sent to such schools, estimates Wayne Stein, director of the
Center for Native American Studies at Montana State University-Bozeman.
The government schools began closing after
Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933.
Walker Lamebull was caught only once speaking "White Clay"
at the mission school in Fort Belknap.
"They used to punish us if they caught
us talking our language at the mission," said Walker Lamebull,
who still lives a block from the old stone mission church at Fort
Belknap and just five miles from the teepee where she was born.
"They used to make us kneel in the corner for a couple hours
... I learned a lesson."
Walker Lamebull, whose Indian name is
"Kills at Night," speaks her native tongue once a week
to a handful of other elders at the Hays-Lodgepole senior center
on the remote, southern edge of the reservation. She lives alone
with her dog, "Nuisance."
"That's the only companion I've got,"
Walker Lamebull says of the shaggy creature with a Benji face.
"She don't talk," she adds,
unleashing a peal of contagious laughter.
Though Walker Lamebull's daughter lives
next door, loneliness still haunts her creased face sometimes.
"If I had somebody to talk to ...,"
she said. "Sometimes I talk to myself. If somebody heard me
talking they might think I was going nuts."
Through the college's "Speaking White
Clay," project, 33-year-old student Terry Brockie visits Walker
Lamebull at least once a week to speak.
After five years of practice with Walker
Lamebull and other elders, Brockie is conversational in White Clay
and teaches at the Fort Belknap College.
"I'm not a fluent speaker by any
means, he said. "But I have a good understanding of it."
Still, Walker Lamebull is frustrated by
what she can't pass on, by her fading memory of her people's traditional
"Kids always want me to tell them
old stories, but I forgot," said Walker Lamebull whose kitchen
counter, with a Jesus statuette and Virgin Mary nightlight, recall
her mission upbringing. "It makes me feel bad forgetting the
old-time stuff I should have kept up."
She shakes her head in wonder at the lost
stories and her dwindling circle of elderly speakers. "Everything's
just gone," she said. "Just vanished."
Ditmar, a generation behind Walker Lamebull,
also was chastised for speaking her first language, in her case
by a favorite teacher in the one-room country school near her home.
"He did not hurt me. But I was tapped
on the cheek with a book for speaking my language and made to sit
down," she said. "I remember it so vividly. I even remember
the book it was. It was a geography book."
Ditmar continued to speak Assiniboine
at home until her grandparents died in the 50s, when her three daughters
"We never noticed at that time that
we began to use the English language more as they passed away,"
she said. Though her oldest daughter understands Assiniboine, she
does not speak it.
As the voices of their parents and grandparents
quieted, younger generations also felt the pressure of mainstream
As an ambitious young man growing up in
the 50s on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Richard Littlebear
saw that English was the language of everyone in positions of influence
-- the teachers, the white ranchers who came into town, the local
He earned an English degree and, until
1980, was adamantly opposed to teaching Indian children their language.
That year the Tongue River Boy's School, where Littlebear was an
administrator, won a bilingual education grant. Littlebear didn't
want the job, but the college knew he was fluent and his administrative
position was axed. Over the next few years, Littlebear says he had
"We're probably the last generation
that, unless we do something, can converse deeply in spiritual and
psychological terms and gain satisfaction from that," he said.
Today Littlebear is president of his reservation's
Chief Dull Knife College. His school works closely with the Learning
Lodge Institute, a language revitalization project based at the
Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation in Southeastern
Sponsored by a four-year grant from the
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the institute helps tribal colleges and
communities on all seven Montana reservations develop language classroom
curriculums, teacher workshops, summer camps, mentoring programs
and other activities.
Summer language immersion camps on the
Blackfeet Reservation attract an average of 250 participants. On
the Crow Reservation young students are paired with fluent tribal
elders through a mentor program.
Montana State University joined the language
preservation effort last fall. With a $1.6 million project through
the U.S. Commerce Department, the university is installing high-end
digital equipment at four Montana reservations: Northern Cheyenne,
Crow, Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap.
Tribal members will be able to use the
equipment at schools, senior centers and field museums to record
stories and songs, take digital photos of beadwork or research their
languages for a class project.
A generation passes
Terry Driscoll, program manager with the
university's Burns Telecommunications Center, recently finished
digitizing tapes of "White Clay" language for Fort Belknap.
The late James Turning Bear, an elder
from the Fort Peck Reservation, inspired the program six years ago,
Driscoll said. She met him in a computer lab at Fort Peck Community
College while she was helping the school hook up to the Internet.
"I turned around and there was this
older gentleman in the back and he's staring and he has these long
braids," Driscoll said.
Driscoll gave him a quick explanation
of the Internet.
But "he's not too enthused,"
she said. "He has his arms crossed."
So she asked him what his interests were
and he answered "Red Cloud." Driscoll typed the name into
a search engine and pulled up a picture of the Lakota warrior and
statesman from the Smithsonian.
"He was a believer at that point,"
she said. For 50 years Turning Bear had combed libraries for information
on his people, recording information in 19 large notebooks. He also
had a collection of photographs, early tribal rolls and other historic
Turning Bear spent two weeks in a dormitory
on MSU's Bozeman campus, archiving his material at the Burns Center.
He also created his own Web site, doing much of the technical work
himself. He died in 1999 at 74.
"It shows what this generation has
in their heads and their hearts and if we don't do this it's not
going to be there anymore," Driscoll said.
Children also are key to linguistic survival.
Almost all Head Start centers on Montana reservations have native
In a lab at the Stone Child Community
College on the Rocky Boy's Reservation, technicians use "Authorware
6" software to create computerized Cree lessons.
The project was funded through a three-year,
$374,000 grant from the Administration for Native Americans/Language
In a counting lesson under development,
a yellow baby duck floats across the computer screen. "Pe-yahk"
says a woman's voice -- "one" in Cree. "Si-sip,"
she says, enunciating the word for "duck." A second duck
floats in and a third and she counts up to 20.
"The possibilities of Authorware
6 are tremendous," said Jolene Murie Crebs, language preservation
coordinator at Stone Child College. "The sky is the limit with
Other lessons feature children's voices
talking about Chief Rocky Boy.
Young parents are embracing the cause.
Next fall, the Rocky Boy's Head Start
program will begin teaching Cree to expectant moms so they can teach
the language to their babies.
Craving their heritage
At bedtime on the Fort Belknap Reservation,
Lynette Chandler, 26, and her husband, Sean, read stories in White
Clay and practice phrases with their four-year-old daughter Shondlyn.
When Shondlyn wants a drink of water,
she must ask in Nakoda or White Clay.
As a young girl, Chandler, whose Indian
name is "Bi-dah-tha," or "Dancing Woman," was
steeped in traditional culture. Her grandfather, Charles Long Fox,
a Nakoda, made sure his grandchildren attended the tribe's ceremonies.
"Every time I'd walk by the kitchen
table he'd be beading and making quill work," Chandler said.
Summers were spent on the road to powwows across the Northwest or
camping in a log cabin with her grandmother, the "White Clay"
traditionalist Florence Stiffarm.
On an unseasonably warm winter day, she
points out log poles marking the family graves on a windy hilltop
above the one-room cabin where her grandmother raised nine kids.
A graduate student in Native American
Studies at Montana State University-Bozeman, Chandler is project
coordinator for the Speaking White Clay Program at the Fort Belknap
Her husband, an accomplished artist, is
on the Native American studies faculty at the college.
Universities and tribal colleges are at
the heart of the language revitalization movement, Chandler said.
The linguistic revival is one way young tribal scholars are taking
their culture back from white anthropologists, researching and interpreting
their language through their own eyes. Chandler has recorded 101
CDs of Walker Lamebull and other elders speaking White Clay.
"It helps Indian people in Indian
country start making decisions for themselves," she said.
Words that heal
Chandler is raising money to establish
a White Clay language immersion school modeled after the Nizipuhwahsin
school on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Kipp, the Nizipuhwahsin founder, also
sees language as a means of empowerment.
"I'm seeing a strong resurgence amongst
Native American people to recoup some of the nice things they were
forced to give up," Kipp said. "We want to start a new
conversation ... you're going to see a whole emergence of new Native
American images." It will be an image of self-sufficiency and
self-reliance, said Kipp, who boasts that not a single government
nickel built the Nizipuhwahsin school.
The movement isn't about shunning mainstream
society and returning to old ways, he said.
"I don't think any Blackfeet are
going to give up the thermostat in their house or their four-wheel-drive
truck and go jump on a horse and live in a teepee on the prairie."
It's about recovering the cultural values
that live in the mountain and prairie languages -- Piegan, Nakoda,
Dakota, White Clay, Cree, Salish, Kootanai, Chippewa, Crow, Northern
The Piegan language is rich with kinship
terms that glue families and communities together, Kipp said.
One calls any woman their mother's age
"aunt," he notes.
"When we lost our language we lost
our strong family bond and community bond," Kipp said. "It
was what protected us in the severest of times."
Perhaps even more is at stake, says Pauline
Standing Rock, who was recently hired to coordinate Head Start language
programs on the Rocky Boy's Reservation.
A fluent Cree speaker, Standing Rock,
48, grew up on the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan, where elders
warned her not to forget her native tongue.
"They say if you lose your language,
you're going to lose your identity," Standing Rock said. "You're
going to lose the value system, the belief system and if you try
to pray to the higher power it's not as effective as it's supposed
to be because God gave you a language to use."
A mother of nine, Standing Rock regrets
that her own children aren't fluent.
"My kids are talking English more
than Cree and it really, really makes me feel bad," she said.
"They said, 'It's Mom and Dad's fault because you didn't speak
Cree to us all the time.' And I guess, in a way, they're right."
Standing Rock's 20-year-old son, "Anthony,"
decided to master the language after a recent trip to the reserve
where his mother grew up.
"I never knew kids up there talked
that good," he said. "It's just like I speak English how
they were talking."
Listening, he felt a lump in his throat.
"It kind of touched me," he
said. "... I didn't want to cry because I'm a big man. I didn't
want to show my tears, I just kept it in."
Anthony insists his mother speak only
Cree to him. She also speaks her first language to her 10-year-old
son, Terry, even on shopping trips to Havre. The nearest town to
the mountainous reservation, Havre is a mostly white community.
"My little boy was aware of that.
'Mom, shhh,' he said. 'Don't talk loud. Don't talk Cree Mom, people
are staring at me.'
"I said, 'Son, you're not supposed
to be ashamed of your language.'"