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Know the West

The Lost Art of Listening

Can the Northern Arapaho save their language?


Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought; customs and habits are molded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated.

--Indian Peace Commission, 1868


When William J. C'Hair's young granddaughter asked him to give her an Arapaho name, he spent a long time trying to think of one that would be right for her. Then one day, outside his house in Wyoming, the Northern Arapaho heard it in a meadowlark's song: Cooxuceneihii.

Meadowlarks are fluent in Arapaho, explains C'Hair. Like birdsong itself as well as other tonal languages such as Chinese, Arapaho uses pitch to carry meaning. It is also polysynthetic, compressing many meanings into single words. Cooxuceneihii, for instance, not only means meadowlark, it also means "it speaks Arapaho" and "it speaks well." When an Arapaho child is slow to start talking, the yellow-breasted bird is fed in a ceremony meant to help the child communicate.

The word is also related to cooxuutit: stories traditionally told by Arapaho warriors upon their return from battle. Today, the struggle to protect the Arapaho way of life continues, but the battleground has shifted. For the last 30 years, the Arapaho have resisted assimilation by attempting to revitalize their language. It has been a losing fight. Of the roughly 8,000-member Northern Arapaho tribe, there are fewer than 250 fluent speakers left, all over the age of 55. Josh Oldman, a young Marine who recently returned from Iraq, says, in frustration, "It's like the torch is being passed from person to person down the line, until the person holding the torch is at the end of the line. He's supposed to be at the front but instead he's behind, and everyone's marching blindly."

Unless the tribe can turn the tide, William J. C'Hair's granddaughter will be among the last to grow up hearing Arapaho in her home. By naming her Cooxuceneihii, C'Hair hopes to pass on the values of his ancestors. Like most of his generation, he wonders whether his grandchild will be able, or willing, to follow them.

Wiry and intense, with a gray-streaked ponytail, Professor Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning says his determination to be a torchbearer for the Arapaho language was inspired by the Plains Indian Dog Soldiers, who tied themselves to stakes and refused to yield their ground. A Southern Arapaho and professor of anthropology and Native American studies at the University of Montana, Greymorning has worked with the Northern Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation for 17 years -- he even dubbed the movie Bambi in Arapaho. But Greymorning says he's tempted to give up.

At the request of the Northern Plains Education Foundation, Greymorning came to the reservation in the early '90s to improve Arapaho instruction. At the time, children were receiving only about 15 minutes of instruction, a couple of times a week. Greymorning started an hour-long, five-day-a-week kindergarten class to see if more time would help. The results were dramatic: After 18 weeks, most of the children had mastered more than 160 words and phrases, compared to students in the three control classes who knew less than 20 words by the end of an entire school year. Encouraged by this success, Greymorning started a half-day immersion kindergarten class in the public school, and then a preschool program modeled on Hawaiian and Maori "language nests." In the language-nest model, English is never spoken in the classroom, and fluent elders pair with younger teachers to immerse children in the language, starting in preschool. Parents are strongly involved. These programs have been so successful in Hawaii and New Zealand that speakers can now attend graduate schools conducted in their native languages.

However, Greymorning soon discovered that sustaining the programs would not be easy. With unemployment on the reservation running as high as 70 percent, funding for the preschools was precarious. Teachers sometimes worked for $5 an hour or less and paid for student lunches out of their own pockets. Today, the two immersion preschools struggle to maintain a $350,000-$400,000 annual budget.

It will take more than preschools to produce fluent speakers, says Greymorning. Once students leave the immersion programs, they lose much of what they learned. A truly successful program would require immersion beyond preschool, and it would recruit young, energetic apprentice teachers. But as the  pool of fluent elders dwindles, time to train these new teachers is running out.

The Arapaho language is so different from its relatives in the Algonquin family, such as Blackfoot, Cheyenne and Cree, that linguists call it a "rogue." They speculate that the tribe might have adopted its own private slang to set itself apart as it migrated from the Great Lakes region toward the Rocky Mountains. There are no written records of the language prior to the 1700s, so linguists can only attempt to reconstruct its origins using a kind of linguistic archaeology -- matching analogous fragments of contemporary words like shards of ancient bone.

The Southern and Northern Arapaho split into two separate bands during the 1840s. After white settlers invaded the Rockies, the Southern Arapaho were sent to an Oklahoma reservation in 1867. In 1878, the Northern Arapaho were forced to retreat, leaving a nomadic life in the forests and mountains of Colorado for the grassy plains of the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming. Fixed beneath a volatile sky, the Arapaho put down new roots beside their traditional enemies, the Eastern Shoshone.

By this time, the Indian Wars had shown the federal government that assimilating Indians was cheaper than killing them outright. Language was identified as "two thirds of the trouble" in pacifying Native nations. The government began to fund the infamous English-only boarding schools, where children were brutalized for speaking their native languages and following tribal ways. There were four such schools on the Wind River Reservation until the 1950s. These days, only around 10 percent of the roughly 300 indigenous languages once spoken in North America are still commonly learned by children. And at least half the world's linguistic diversity -- more than 3,200 of the 6,500 languages spoken in the world today -- will disappear within the century.

The Arapaho tribes' traditional form of education, oral storytelling, had largely died out by the 1950s. Most parents of the World War II era avoided speaking Arapaho to their children, hoping to make their assimilation easier. However, in the 1960s and '70s, attitudes toward Native language began to shift. The 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act gave tribes greater, though by no means total, freedom to run their own schools. Elders and activists, particularly those involved with the American Indian Movement, began to fight for the preservation of indigenous languages and a return to traditional values.

But at the time, no one knew how to save an endangered language. William J. C'Hair describes a disastrous early language camp. He and other fluent Arapaho speakers barricaded an area on the reservation with signs that said "Arapaho only." They cooked food, and waited for interested tribal members to arrive. Within hours, curious, hungry Arapaho overran the camp -- speaking only English.

White teachers outnumbered Native teachers in reservation classrooms, as they largely do today. However, disagreements about Arapaho language instruction in the reservation's Western-style public schools divided Indian and non-Indian faculty alike. For teachers already struggling to help their students meet state standards in English and math, Arapaho seemed like an extravagance. Complicating things further was the fact that no proven method for teaching Arapaho existed in the '70s, partly because the language lacked a written form until 1982. Fluent Arapaho speakers asked to teach the language rarely had training in teaching. Their students memorized lists of plant and animal names, but did not learn how to "think" in Arapaho.

Many Arapaho see the loss of their language as a kind of spiritual test. Without it, the tribe's ceremonies can't be conducted correctly. "You lose the language, you lose the soul," says Sergio Maldonaldo, director of tribal education. Mike Redman, who teaches Arapaho at the elementary-school level, believes that if the Arapaho lose their language, it will be because the Creator deemed them unworthy of it. He nearly came to blows with another Arapaho involved in education this spring over an argument about how his program is administered. Money and politics, he says, have corrupted the tribe: "Arapahos are being anti-Arapaho. The government did a good job."

On a February school day, squealing, shouting preschoolers riding red and yellow bouncy balls stampede across the Hinono'eitiino'oowu'  (Arapaho Language Lodge) language immersion classroom in Ethete. They swarm strangers, grinning gap-toothed grins, and show off what they know in Arapaho, pointing to the images that cover the walls from floor to ceiling -- raindrops, stars, turtles, a rabbit jumping over a fence, a couple dancing.

"Come to my workshop, and I'll teach you 16 phrases in Arapaho in 10 minutes," Greymorning had told me over the phone as I began to research language revitalization efforts on the Wind River Reservation. Greymorning left the reservation in 1994 for the University of Montana in Missoula. He still advises the immersion programs from afar. Over the years, however, he has been consistently frustrated by what he considers teachers' and administrators' failure to implement his methods for teaching Arapaho. So in 2009, Greymorning decided to make what he described as a "final" trip from Montana to conduct yet another teach-in on the Wind River Reservation.

Hands on hips, he stares down the small group assembled before him, talking about his immersion program at the University of Montana. "In my (college) classroom, after nine hours, students have learned 200 phrases they can manipulate in three different ways. Can any of the kids who graduate from schools here do that?" The teachers murmur and shake their heads. No. This is unheard of in the immersion or public school programs -- even for students who've taken Arapaho from kindergarten through high school.

Greymorning is convinced that the problem lies in teachers' failure to implement his curriculum. His system doesn't introduce writing and reading until students have mastered speaking. This grates against standard methods of teaching a second language, especially in the public school system, which relies heavily on written assessment. Greymorning also forbids the use of English as a crutch -- perhaps the hardest rule for teachers to adhere to, particularly if their own knowledge of Arapaho is not solid.

"It's like you're swimming around in circles," says Greymorning, referring to teachers' tendency to lapse into English. "I'm here trying to throw you a rope, but you keep trying to do the same thing that isn't working."

The teachers stare back at Greymorning, some of them balefully. One commanding middle-aged woman makes a point of talking to her neighbor as he speaks. Easy for you to say, her attitude suggests. You try controlling a classroom full of rowdy preschoolers without ever using English. (Greymorning gets a frosty reception from some people on the reservation. "Greymorning left," they say, suggesting that if he'd really wanted to help, he would have stayed.)

Unfazed, Greymorning suddenly tells me to stand up. He takes me over to a wall of pictures that are grouped according to his system, which is tailored to Arapaho grammar. A few of the older ladies smile encouragement.

Greymorning points at the first image -- a little girl -- and says, distinctly: hiseihihi'. Hiseihihi,' I repeat, palms sweating. Ci' nihii beeseitii says Greymorning. Try again, his expression says, but louder, more confidently. After we go through the first set of words, Greymorning quizzes me. I slap my hand down on the images as he names them, repeating the words again. It feels like a game -- a far cry from filling in bubbles on multiple-choice tests.

As we build quickly from four to 16 words, however, I start to make mistakes. Wo'ooo, the word for "cat," is harder to pronounce -- the vowels trip over themselves, surging forward. When I can't figure out what Greymorning means by 3i'okuuto'oo, the Arapaho word for chair, he tells me in Arapaho to sit down in a chair, and then to stand up. At first, I can't figure out what he's referring to. Then it clicks: In Arapaho, the word "sit" -- ceenoku is related to the word "chair:" 3i'okuuto'oo. I point to the image of the chair and bask in applause, feeling like a precocious 5-year-old.

Next, Greymorning quizzes Robert Hall, a 20-year-old Blackfoot man who has studied Arapaho with him at the University of Montana. As the older people listen to Hall -- who isn't even Arapaho -- give life and breath to their language, the atmosphere in the room thaws further. "I used to think (my native language) was an old person's language," says Hall. But after he left for college, he realized that "the privilege of being from the rez is understanding that language is a spiritual thing. I want to pray to my ancestors through my own language. It has to come from the heart. The English version is not from the heart."

Nowadays, young people are more likely to say "S'up" than "Tous" in greeting, laments Arapaho teacher Liz Lone Bear -- more likely to learn Spanish and dress like L.A. gangsters than to speak Arapaho. But sometimes, she admits, the elders make it worse by making fun of young people who are trying to learn. "That's real ignorant. Instead of laughing, we need encouragement," notes an older man. The group nods agreement. Hall looks around, a little sadly, and says, "We all need help. Our elders need help. I need help."

Someday soon, as fluent speakers disappear, Arapaho immersion will no longer be possible. Andrew Cowell, a linguist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is preparing for that day.

Many linguists spend six months or so in a language community, writing down lists of words and making dictionaries. Then they leave to make their contribution to linguistic theory. Cowell, in contrast, has come to the Wind River Reservation for nearly 10 years to document and analyze Arapaho. He recently co-authored an Arapaho grammar textbook with Arapaho storyteller Alonso Moss Sr. He has also developed curricula and dictionaries for the tribe and plans to film at least 25 hours of conversation so that future learners can see how gestures help create meaning.

Gawky, with a shy smile, Cowell's quiet self-effacing manner is nothing like Stephen Greymorning's acerbic zeal. The two academics are respectfully critical of one another's work. Cowell sees Greymorning's work as admirable but sometimes "basic" and, predictably, not always linguistically precise. As for Cowell's recent grammar book, Greymorning says, "Here's the problem with a book like that -- it's resource material. ... Most people are not going to be able to understand how to apply it."

Greymorning notes with frustration how hard it is to find grant money to start language nests and master-apprentice programs. Academics find it far easier to obtain funding to document dying languages. He thinks this imbalance stems from the colonialist approach, which focused on extracting information from languages for the sake of science. In the words of another language activist, Euchee Indian and University of Tulsa professor Richard Grounds, preservation means "pickling" languages rather than helping them survive in all their complexity.

Cowell argues that the nuances he documents make Arapaho language and culture what it is. Such distinctions can't be taught at the most basic levels, and time with the elders is running out. Without such tools as grammar books and conversational videos, subtle but crucial aspects of the culture will disappear forever. He offers examples, describing the ceremonial tense, which is indicated by a slightly different sound at the end of a word, and explaining the Arapaho love for long, elaborate puns.

Despite their differences, activists and linguists agree that the crux of the matter lies in how young people perceive the endangered language. Some young Arapaho, such as Hall and Brandon Culbertson, who is studying Arapaho at the tribal college, believe the language has an important role to play in the future of the tribe. "It provides us tools to cope," Culbertson says. "A better, more thoughtful, more intelligent existence."

Teenagers on the Wind River Reservation have plenty to cope with. Suicide rates among Native teenagers are 3.5 times the national average, and Plains Indian youth are most at risk. Poverty and unemployment are compounded by drugs, alcohol, neglect and abuse. Out of five random students, says high school culture teacher Eugene Ridgely Jr. III, "four of them won't be able to tell you what they're going to do tomorrow. They may not even know where they're going to spend the night."

Ridgely Jr. III teaches at St. Stephen's Indian High School, a former missionary boarding school on the reservation. Liz Lone Bear, who attended St. Stephen's as a child, says she can still feel the sting of the sisters' rulers when she speaks Arapaho. The school came under Indian control in 1975; however, even though teachers at St. Stephen's now reward students for speaking Arapaho rather than beating them, Ridgely Jr. III says lingering mistrust of formal schools, especially among the elders, contributes to sky-high rates of truancy. There have been days, he says, when more than 1,000 students on the Wind River Reservation were unaccounted for.

In May 2009, at St. Stephen's Indian High School graduation, a round-cheeked teenager named Danika wears a white satin cap and gown and sparkly turquoise eyeliner. One of seven graduates, she is beating the odds. Official records say that Arapaho dropout rates are around 20 percent, says education director Sergio Maldonaldo, but "we know damn well they're more like 60 percent." Absenteeism goes both ways: Maldonaldo guesses that nearly half of St. Stephen's faculty didn't show up for the graduation ceremony.

Like many Native youth, Danika says she wants to join the military. She craves the faster pace of life, the discipline. Do you ever think you'll come back to the reservation? I ask. She hesitates. Even though her teachers have encouraged her to go to college, she knows her family and friends don't want her to leave. It can be hard to return once you've left. "What if you have kids? Do you want them to be raised with traditional Arapaho values? Will they learn the language?"  Wrong question, I think, as her eyes tear up. She already has a baby. She got pregnant in her junior year -- almost a rite of passage among teenage girls here. It's taken all she has, she says, just to keep her grades up and stay on the basketball team. As for learning Arapaho and following traditional ways in addition to succeeding in school, she says, "The (elders) don't understand how hard it is."

After the graduation ceremony, what seems like hundreds of relatives and friends fill the Wind River Casino ballroom to celebrate. People line up to get food from the steaming buffet table, then sit down. But no one eats. Instead, they wait for a tiny, elderly woman wearing a fuchsia windbreaker to push her walker to the front of the room. A pod of tattooed teenagers comes in late, dressed like gangsters and looking hungry, but, in keeping with Arapaho custom, they stop cold before they cross the woman's path. Even though the elder's words are nearly drowned out by pulsing techno from the game room, the teenagers form a half circle around her and bow their heads. In Arapaho, she blesses the food.

A former High Country News intern, Emily Underwood writes from Coloma, California.