Wyoming: Its Native Tongue Facing Extinction, Arapaho Tribe Teaches the Young

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Oct 17 13:28:52 UTC 2008

October 17, 2008
 Its Native Tongue Facing Extinction, Arapaho Tribe Teaches the Young By DAN

RIVERTON, Wyo. — At 69, her eyes soft and creased with age, Alvena Oldman
remembers how the teachers at St. Stephens boarding school on the Wind River
Reservation would strike students with rulers if they dared to talk in their
native Arapaho language. "We were afraid to speak it," she said. "We knew we
would be punished." More than a half-century later, only about 200 Arapaho
speakers are still alive, and tribal leaders at Wind River, Wyoming's only
Indian reservation, fear their language will not survive. As part of an
intensifying effort to save that language, this tribe of 8,791, known as the
Northern Arapaho, recently opened a new school where students will be taught
in Arapaho. Elders and educators say they hope it will create a new
generation of native speakers.

"This is a race against the clock, and we're in the 59th minute of the last
hour," said a National Indian Education Association board member, Ryan
Wilson, whom the tribe hired as a consultant to help get the school off the
ground. Like other tribes, the Northern Arapaho have suffered from the
legacy of Indian boarding institutions, established by the federal
government in the late 1800s to "Americanize" Native American children. It
was at such schools that teachers instilled the "kill the Indian, save the
man" philosophy, young boys had their traditional braids shorn, and students
were forbidden to speak tribal languages.

The discipline of those days was drummed into an entire generation of
Northern Arapaho, and most tribal members never passed down the language. Of
all the remaining fluent speakers, none are younger than 55.

That is what tribal leaders hope to change. About 22 children from
pre-kindergarten through first grade started classes at the school — a
rectangular one-story structure with a fresh coat of white paint and the
words Hinono' Eitiino' Oowu' (translation: Arapaho Language Lodge) written
across its siding.

Here, set against an endless stretch of windswept plains and tufts of
cottonwoods, instructors are using a state-approved curriculum to teach
students exclusively in Arapaho. All costs related to the school, which has
an operating budget of $340,000 a year, are paid for by the tribe and
private donors. Administrators plan to add a grade each year until it
comprises pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade classes.

"This environment is a complete reversal of what occurs too often in
schools, where a child is ridiculed or reprimanded for speaking one's
heritage language," said Inée Y. Slaughter, executive director of the
Indigenous Language Institute, a group in Santa Fe, N.M., that works with
tribes on native languages.

"I want my son to talk nothing but Arapaho to me and my grandparents," said
Kayla Howling Buffalo, who enrolled her 4-year-old son, RyLee, in the

Ms. Howling Buffalo, 25, said she, too, had been inspired to take Arapaho
classes because her grandmother no longer has anyone to speak with and fears
she is losing her first language.

Such sentiments are not uncommon on the reservation and have become more
pronounced in the five years since Helen Cedar Tree, at 96 the oldest living
Northern Arapaho, made an impassioned plea to the tribe's council of elders.

"She said: 'Look at all of you guys talking English, and you know your own
language. It's like the white man has conquered us,' " said Gerald Redman
Sr., the chairman of the council of elders. "It was a wake-up call."

A group of Arapaho families had sent their children to a pre-kindergarten
language program for years, but it was not enough. Heeding Ms. Cedar Tree's
words, the tribe began using Arapaho dictionaries, night classes, CDs made
by the tribe, and anything they could find to help resuscitate the language.
In the end, "we knew in our hearts that immersion was the only way we were
going to turn this around," said Mr. Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota

He was referring not just to the potential for the Arapaho language's
extinction but to a host of other problems that have long plagued the vast
reservation, which the tribe shares with the Eastern Shoshone.

"Language-immersion schools offer an environment that goes beyond teaching
the language," Ms. Slaughter said. "It provides a safe place where a child's
roots are nurtured, its culture honored, and its being valued."

According to tribal statistics and the United States Attorney's Office in
Wyoming, 78 percent of household heads on the reservation are unemployed,
the student dropout rate is 52 percent and crime has been rising.

Most recently, in June, three teenage girls were found dead in a low-income
housing complex. The
not yet released autopsy results, but many tribal members think drugs
alcohol were involved. The deaths left the reservation reeling. Officials
here hope that the school will herald a positive change, just as programs
elsewhere have helped native youth become conversational in their tribal
languages, enhancing cultural pride and participation in the process. A
groundswell of language revitalization efforts has led to successful Indian
immersion schools in Hawaii, Montana and New York.

Studies show that language fluency among young Indians is tied to overall
academic achievement, and experts say such learning can have other positive

"Language seems to be a healing force for Native American communities," said
Ellen Lutz, executive director of Cultural Survival, a group based in
Cambridge, Mass., that is working with the Northern Arapaho. At a recent
ceremony to celebrate the school's opening, held in an old tribal meeting
hall, three young girls sang shyly in Arapaho. Behind them, a row of elders
sat quietly, their faces wizened and stoic, legs shuffling rhythmically as
familiar words carried through the building.

"They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was
looking," Mr. Wilson said, referring to the elders. "If we lose that
language, we lose who we are."


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