in Klane King's Great Falls language classes enjoy reciting everyday
phrases they've learned in Blackfeet and listen eagerly as their
teacher tells them how Native American songs, games and dances
came to be.
a heady experience for King, who learned Blackfeet from his parents
as a preschooler in southern Alberta, only to have boarding school
teachers try to drum it out of him by whacking his wrists with a
almost forgot the basics of my native tongue," he said.
King had the last say.
college, he came home to the Blood Reserve, as reservations are
known in Canada, and started a video production company that specialized
in features about Blackfeet elders and legends. Teachers used many
of those videos in classrooms of the reservation schools, which
had reformed and stressed the importance of Blackfeet culture and
mid-January King has been teaching an introductory Blackfeet class
at both Great Falls and C.M. Russell high schools.
the only Indian language class being taught at a nonreservation
Montana high school.
Great Falls district offered a similar intro class to the Cree language
three years ago. It was dropped after three semesters when enrollment
semester, 23 GFH students and 11 CMR students are taking the class.
are 1,243 Indian students in the Great Falls public schools, about
11 percent of the total, said Assistant Superintendent Dick Kuntz,
who was instrumental in starting and renewing the Indian language
district has reduced its Native American dropout rate from a sky-high
80 percent to a state low 10 percent in the 30 years it has had
an Indian Education Program featuring tutoring and home counseling,
Kuntz said. But that's still about four times the dropout rate for
the entire student body.
way you can help Native American kids identify with their culture,
you've given them another incentive to stay in school," Kuntz
said. "And if we get them coming to school every day, they'll
do better in their other subjects, too."
Falls High School Principal Fred Anderson said school officials
hope to sustain interest this time by adding more advanced classes
if enough students want to keep going.
think it's an excellent class that will provide an opportunity for
both Native American and other students to increase their cultural
awareness," Anderson said. He was enthralled after hearing
King describe the Blackfeet's original territory, which sprawled
from present-day Edmonton to Yellowstone Park, between the Rockies
and eastern Montana.
to another culture"
Blackfeet language is a window to another culture," agreed
Deanne Leader, director of the Indian Education Program. "Without
the words, you can't understand a group's customs and beliefs."
new language class is not all that the district is doing. This year
Great Falls sophomores are required to take a Montana civics class
divided evenly between tribal government and nontribal government.
Next fall high school students can take an optional class that gives
an overview of the history and culture of Montana's 11 Indian tribes.
glad to see them start teaching the language here," said Jewell
Snell, 65, who with her husband, Frank, is raising four school-age
grandchildren. "A lot of people my age never had the chance.
The government sent us from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana
to a boarding school in Oregon where nobody spoke our language."
learned a little bit of Blackfeet from my mother and aunts, but
not a lot," said parent Mary Marceau, 37. "I think Indian
kids should be able to learn their language and cultural background,
but it's harder in an urban setting off the reservation."
knew a few Blackfeet words, but am learning a lot more," said
her son, GFH sophomore Ché Marceau, 15. "It's easy the
way Mr. King teaches with repetition and stories."
spent half my time growing up in Great Falls and half in Browning,
so I learned a few basic words from my grandparents," said
GFH junior Roger Cruz, 17. "I wanted to learn more about my
culture, and the class is already helping. It's the class I most
look forward to every day."
grew up in Great Falls and didn't know any Blackfeet," said
freshman Virginia Yazzie, 16. "I'm looking forward to going
to a powwow some time and striking up a conversation in Blackfeet."
senior Joe Eagleman, 17, is a senior of Chippewa-Cree descent.
(Blackfeet class) is learning about another Indian culture that
is like mine in some ways but different," he said. "It
can be hard starting from scratch with an unwritten language."
of the Blackfeet language students at both schools are non-Indian.
is Hanneke Stubbe, 18, a Dutch exchange student at GFH.
really like languages and in Europe we're required to take four,"
she said. "I want to become an anthropologist and this class
is great, because I'm learning about a culture I knew nothing about."
senior Josh Werkheiser, 17, also is a language buff, and said it's
not hard to learn a new language once you realize that internal
English rules do not apply.
definitely been fun to start learning the Blackfeet language and
culture," he said.
stressed that Blackfeet should be spoken "in a flat and low
tone, with no musical lilts up and down." There are other differences
between English and Blackfeet, too, he said.
the United States and Canada people almost seem to panic when there
is a lapse in conversation," he said. "In Blackfeet, it's
common to pause every now and then, maybe take a swig of coffee,
and let companions absorb what's been said."
also thinks the Blackfeet language has more specific nouns, with
some words taking the place of whole sentences in English.
instance, the word "iniwa" means buffalo. When Blackfeet
add a long, tongue-twisting suffix, the word signifies "the
buffalo are rumbling toward you with their back, dew claws clicking."
can almost feel the dust and better scramble for cover.
King, 50, was at the tail end of the similar Canadian and U.S. government
practices of sending Native American kids to boarding schools where
they were directly or indirectly discouraged from using their own
at age 6, he spent weekdays at a boarding school across the reservation
from his home. Teachers demanded that students speaking Blackfeet
place their hands on the table and smacked their wrists.
said they drove the colorful language from his lips, and almost
from his memory, but not from his heart.
attended college in Edmonton, picking up degrees in Canadian studies
and Native communication, including broadcast and video production
skills. But the instructors who spoke a Native language were Cree,
he returned home he remembered how rich his native tongue and traditions
were when he began making videos of tribal elders.
moved to Great Falls in 2000, where he has been a volunteer cameraman
for the public access television channel and a disk jockey for KGPR,
the public radio station.
jumped at the chance to teach Blackfeet when Kuntz approached him.
He demonstrated he was fluent in the language to Blackfeet tribal
officials, a requirement to get his education certificate from the
has several goals for his students. He wants to teach them enough
conversational Blackfeet so they can walk up to tribal elders and
politely chat. He also will teach them a few Blackfeet meditations,
thanking the Creator and asking for blessings.
week, King chanted his brief, eloquent personal song for the students,
suggesting if they listen carefully they can catch a rhythm and
make their own song to see them through adversity.
is a really sweet and calming little ditty that came to me one time,"
he said, quipping: "And there's no copyright infringement worries
to prevent me from singing it over and over."