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Northern Arapaho tribal entities work to preserve their language in the face of extinction

Rebecca Martinez

HOST: The number of Northern Arapaho tribe members who speak their native language is dwindling. Tribal entities have been working for decades trying to preserve the language. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports that they’ve been having mixed success.

(Sound: kids speaking Arapaho)

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Tribal elder Alvena Oldman is the director of an Arapaho language immersion preschool in Ethete.

OLDMAN: Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’. Arapaho Language Lodge.

MARTINEZ: Here, teachers and students are encouraged to speak ONLY in Arapaho while they’re here. They sing in Arapaho. They read in Arapaho.

(Sound: singing)

Arapaho was Oldman’s first language. Kids can’t say that anymore. Until a few decades ago, teachers in Mission Schools on the Wind River Reservation demanded that students speak English and only English.

OLDMAN: They were being scolded, they were being hit, they were just being… you know if they spoke their language. So then therefore their parents, like me, taught their kids, if they don’t want to get in trouble or anything, don’t use the language.

MARTINEZ: So they didn’t. That’s why, of the 10-thousand members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe today, only about 200 elders can still speak Arapaho fluently. In about 15 years, the language will be extinct. The tribe has encouraged members to try to learn using instructional tapes and books, but nothing has stuck. Kids in public schools are taking Arapaho classes as though it were a foreign language. But the belief is, one can really only master Arapaho by being immersed in it. That’s what the Arapaho Language Lodge in Ethete does. It’s been around since the mid-1990s.

(Sound: Child naming animals)

OLDMAN: We start with these little ones and they learn real good until they get on to elementary schools or whatever other school they go to, and they don’t have as much as we do here, all day long. And they start to lose it.

MARTINEZ: Wayne C’Hair and some of his fellow tribal elders are trying to do the same thing in the town of Arapahoe, because, C’Hair says the language is an integral part of the Arapaho identity.

C’HAIR: The words are colorful. English is like watching Black and White TV. Arapaho is like digital color TV with things exploding all over the place. Real beautiful language. It rhymes. (Speaks Arapaho).
MARTINEZ: What does it mean, what you just said?
C’HAIR: ‘There are many black and white cows in the field.’ It’s like a poem when we speak, you know.

MARTINEZ: While little kids catch on quickly, the tribe has had little success helping them retain it, so students lose their command of Arapaho when they get older.

(Sound: schoolyard)

Across town, Arapahoe Middle schoolers in Fremont School District 38 play basketball and gossip in English. These students take classes in Arapaho language and culture a few times a week, but the district’s Indian Education Committee – made up of administrators and tribal elders – are working to expand and refine their curriculum to help students not only learn but retain the Arapaho language.

FRANCES DEWEY: See, when we say the word, then the student actually goes out…

MARTINEZ: Elder Frances Dewey demonstrates the Total Physical Response method – or TPR – with teacher Kelly Goede. In Arapaho, Dewey commands her to go out the door, to come in, to stand quietly, to sit down. The students repeat the commands and act them out.

(Sound: TPR demonstration)

MARTINEZ: Superintendent Jonathan Braack says students at the Arapahoe Charter High School spend one class period per day doing TPR exercises with an elder and are benefitting from it. Braack says a pilot class from the elementary school will start in January, and he hopes it will expand to the entire district soon.

But TPR’s not a perfect method, says Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning, an anthropologist and Native American Studies professor at the University of Montana. Greymorning researched Arapaho language preservation techniques on the Wind River Reservation years ago and founded the first Arapaho Language Lodge. He says TPR doesn’t produce fluent speakers because commands don’t cover everything a language does.

STEPHEN GREYMORNING: It doesn’t work. I mean, how do you teach someone about flying? You can’t tell them to fly. How do you teach someone about swimming that’s never swam before? You know, there is no total physical response. You can’t throw someone in the water or throw someone out the window.

MARTINEZ: Greymorning asserts the only way to create more fluent indigenous-language speakers is to immerse them in the language constantly, which would require a critical mass of cooperation among students, teachers, parents and tribal leaders all working and speaking together. That method has has been successful is some Hawaiian school districts. The Northern Arapaho tribe has never been able to achieve that, and the number of elders continues to dwindle.

Arapaho historian and language advocate Eugene Ridgley Jr., better known as Snowball, is helping to shape the language and culture classes at Fremont School District 38. He says beyond TPR, students will learn Arapaho greeting, songs, etc. He says it’s better than nothing.

SNOWBALL: They’ll become conversational, but as far as fluent… It would have to take some special program like maybe a master-apprentice program to accomplish that.

MARTINEZ: Snowball says when his son, Michael, was studying at the Wind River Tribal College almost a decade ago, he had a chance to apprentice with an elder and spoke only Arapaho with him for several hours a day. Michael is still working to master the language, but he speaks Arapaho at home with his 3- and 5-year-old daughters. Snowball’s happy to report that they’re picking it up pretty well.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.

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