Okoyi: To Have A Home
Banishment was the strongest punishment my tribe imposed on a member
unable to abide the tribal ways. Without realizing it, I had banished
myself from my tribe.
Every persons lifetime is a relationship between the time
our life covers, and the space our bodies occupy. There have been
countless lifetimes within my tribe and many to come. My lifetime
as a tribal member is where past, present and future exists for
me. This view allows me to put imposed tribal definitions aside.
For example, in our language we are Pikuni; in English speaking
America we are the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. Today many tribal
names are not their true tribal language name, but one imposed on
them. One of the horrors Indians endure is having outsiders define
us based on one-dimensional studies. It is better we define our
tribe, and ourselves.
I am one of many lifetimes existing in Pikuni time, and therefore
am part of the tribe once and forever. The Pikuni language is my
teacher now, and is in my view the truth keeper for future Pikuni
generations. This is my vocation and belief. I believe loss of tribal
languages diminishes the truth of Indian ways, and dishonors the
lifetimes within the tribe.
We should remember imposed tribal identification is insignificant
compared to the biological, linguistic, religious and historical
continuum tribal essence possesses. Understand this, and imposed
definitions of tribal membership become inadequate.
Words such as half-breed, full blood, mixed-blood, and the myriad
of others are fragmentary and inflammatory. Dont use them
regardless of any circumstance. Instead seek your home language
and use it for knowledge. Allegiance to tribal languages is at present
hard to come by, and many people have yet to find the way to embrace
the notion. It is difficult because allegiance must come to you
through the heart and mean something. Yet, it is the way home, and
can still be done.
Historical circles divide Pikuni history into elementary periods
such as days of the dog; introduction of horse and gun, and reservation
days. It is a weak, biased method, since my tribe is not limited
to life in the dog, horse or reservation period. True Pikuni history
is identified by stories extending back (and forward) thousands
of years, and retold out loud in the tribal language. The archeologist
recounts thousands of years of Pikuni People, but only our language
remains the accurate recorder of our secrets. Learn the oldest word
in a tribal language to realize how it speaks the truth. The true
challenge facing future generations, as well as the present one,
is revitalizing our languages in order to keep our memory viable
for future generations.
Tribal languages contain the tribal genesis, cosmology, history,
and secrets within. Without them we may become permanently lost,
or irrevocably changed. I am a Pikuni and know why. In our language,
I am a nizitapiwa, a real person. It derives from how my language
treats the form for I or me spoken as "niz" a derivative
of nostum, or my body. When I speak Pikuni my body and spirit speak
to kizitapiwa, another real person. My Pikuni name is Apiniokio
Peta translated as Morning Eagle, and I belong to the Pikuni translated
as Far Off Spotted Robes. I know my family, chiefs, and heroes names
(both women and men) from long ago times. I know Apistokiwa, the
Maker, placed us on earth in what is now called Montana. The reservation
is what is left of our home ground, yet I take comfort in knowing
points off-reservation named in our language are part of our hearts
country. This is knowledge we should possess, yet I was not fully
informed until studying my tribal language.
The one-room school I attended had a map of the world on the
wall. As a schoolboy I learned about distant places. In high school
one teacher repeatedly told us to move to one of these places and
stay there. He called it the American dream. A small number of classmates
and I did go to college, and learned of more distant places. The
United States Army drafted me into service in l966, and sent me
to a distant part of the world. In time I graduated from Eastern
Montana College, Harvard University, and Vermont College. For years
I lived and worked in what might be called exotic places, and traveled
One quiet weekend morning, in the hush confines of a tall city
building, I experienced a longing to go home. At first it seemed
childish, but the feeling moved deeper into my thoughts during the
following days. Banishment was the strongest punishment my tribe
delivered to a member unable to abide the tribal ways, and without
realizing it I had banished myself from my tribe. My pursuits up
until then had been a journey away from my people, my ways, and
my quintessential self as a Pikuni. On that morning I began a journey
home. For some it may be difficult to find where true home is, but
it is there. Relearning, or studying your tribal language is the
ultimate pathway home, and it is important to start before the first
sign of longing appears. You may misinterpret your feelings and
miss the calling.
I have been home now for many years. I share my happiness with
those I pray with at our medicine pipe and Okan lodge ceremonies.
As Pikuni we thank the Creator for our good fortune and luck, and
are glad to share it with others. I learned through language study
my original band was called Moxamini within the tribe, and is translated
as Those Who Camp By The Lakes. It is meaningful to me since I live
most of the year next to a mountain lake in a home I built years
I still travel to many of those places school taught me about.
Last year I made a documentary in the remote mountains of Bulgaria,
and have visited the people of the Arctic Circle. This year I filmed
a documentary about an early day Pikuni campsite where a city now
My first documentary, Transitions: Death of a Mother Tongue,
was about Pikuni children in an early day reservation mission school.
It was there our language was brutalized and deemed worthless. It
won national recognition, but was more important to my tribes
healing process and paved the way for us to respect our language
In my work in Native American Languages revitalization, I visited
over 30 tribes throughout America, and met with countless others.
Often at training sessions people were thrilled at speaking even
a small part of their language. They would recount when their language
resounded throughout the community, and emotion would overcome many
to the point of crying. The deep emotion came from their love for
those past lifetimes we wish to be part of.
I also know when people relearn their language the first thing
they wish to do is pray in it. I have been at the deathbed of several
tribal languages, and know most are weak and fragile. On behalf
of the tribal languages of this earth, I share this dream with you.
The dream has a question in it, but I do not know the answer except
the one I gave years ago. The answer is in your heart, and belongs
to only you.
It goes like this: you are walking in a place you know and love,
and come upon your grandparents sitting by the path. Do you pass
them by and abandon them, or stop; embrace them, and carry them
to your destination? It should be an easy choice, but it isnt
in this day and age.
Tribal languages are the grandparents in the dream, and only
the uncaring, unknowing, and those too busy pass them by. If you
stop and embrace them wealth and a kinder world will be bestowed
upon you. Tribal languages can be revitalized to sooth our childrens
hearts again if people stop long enough to embrace them. Our Pikuni
language, and yours, can produce healthy kids with choices, and
To embrace our grandparents we designed the Pikuni Nizipuhwahsin
(original language) K-8 school for 50 children as our grandparents
home. No government funds were used to build or operate it. It is
the sanctum sanctorum, and sanctuary of the Pikuni language.
It is a beautiful place, and I wish there were such places for
every Indian child in this land. Maybe you will build one for your
children. My language was a calling I heard years ago that I mistook
for loneliness. I cherish every word learned, and my prayers are
to be granted time to learn more. I learned a great deal through
this calling. I utilize the formal education taught me, although
it no longer dictates my definition of knowledge.
I can only tell you this: You do not need permission to study
your language. Make your prayers to the Creator for strength, and
trust in what is provided. Do not debate with people who question
your journey. Make use of the process of self-discovery and follow
your Indian heart. It is a difficult, but truly rewarding journey
Darrell Robes Kipp
The mission of THE PIEGAN INSTITUTE is to serve as a vehicle
to research, promote and preserve Native languages. Founded
in 1987, the Institute has its national headquarters and community-based
programs on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.
Our community-based objectives are to increase the number of
Blackfeet language speakers, to increase the cultural knowledge
base of community members, and to actively influence positive
community-based change. Our national objectives are to promote
support for Native language issues through advocacy and education
and to provide a voice to the national and international dialogue
on Native Language restoration.