The lost art of listening

Can a University of Montana professor help save the Northern Arapaho language?

| January 07, 2010

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, and all are 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.

Tribal elder Mark Soldier Wolf greets his granddaughter at the inauguration of a new language immersion school on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Of the roughly 8,000-member Northern Arapaho tribe, there are fewer than 250 fluent speakers left, and all are over the age of 55. - PHOTO BY KEVIN MOLONEY
  • Photo by Kevin Moloney
  • Tribal elder Mark Soldier Wolf greets his granddaughter at the inauguration of a new language immersion school on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Of the roughly 8,000-member Northern Arapaho tribe, there are fewer than 250 fluent speakers left, and all are over the age of 55.

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 American Indians was cheaper than killing them outright. Language was identified as "two thirds of the trouble" in pacifying American Indian 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 of 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.

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