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

Page 4

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.

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