The Lost Art of Listening

Can the Northern Arapaho save their language?

  • Northern Arapaho tribal elder Mark Soldier Wolf, with his granddaughter, Blue Moccasin Soldier Wolf.

    Kevin Moloney
  • The Arapaho Language School in Arapaho, one of two Arapaho-language immersion preschools on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation.

    Kevin Moloney
  • Children at the immersion preschool in Ethete.

    Emily Underwood
  • Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning

  • Arapaho lettering on a cross in the cemetery at St. Stephen's Mission, where many Arapaho children attended English-only boarding school.

    Emily Underwood

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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."

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