Swimming in Words


The following text is drawn from a booklet titled "Encouragement, Guidance, Insights, and Lessons Learned for Native Language Activists Developing Their Own Tribal Language Programs." The booklet is a transcript of a conversation in March 2000 between Darrell Kipp and 12 native language activists at the Piegan Institute, the Blackfeet immersion school co-founded by Kipp. The
full text is available through the Piegan Institute.

I grew up in the community in the 1960s in a one-room school on the Blackfeet reservation—a good place to learn. After leaving that school, I went to college at Eastern Montana College. I showed up with no dorm assignment, and there were no Indians there. I was given a test for English, but as an Indian, it was assumed that I would fail, and I was assigned to “bonehead English.” Ironically, I eventually majored in English and got an MFA in writing from Goddard College, which later became Vermont College. After that, in the mid-1970s, I got drafted. After serving in the Army, I got a master’s degree at Harvard University in 1975, studying social change and institutional change. My career kept me very active; I lived in Boston and other places. I consulted with a lot of tribes around the country, and I traveled extensively. But in the 1980s, it was time to go home.

As Indian people, we are always drawn home.

We were told as kids that only failures stayed on the reservation. That notion is reinforced even today by some of my professional colleagues. But in 1983, Dr. Dorothy Still Smoking and I (we have very similar backgrounds) asked ourselves, “What will we do on this reserve to make a change?” We wanted to develop our education, our experience, and our vision to create new opportunities. We did a lot of work developing the community college but never found our real place there.

In 1984, I was teaching advanced writing techniques, and Dorothy was teaching advanced Native American studies at the community college. We organized a joint field trip to the Glenbow Museum up in Canada. The museum had volumes of papers, history, and documents on the Blackfeet Tribe. A little old curator who was standing there kept saying over and over, “But who are you?” (to our incredible annoyance). We gently reminded him that we had sent a letter from the community college, that we had permission to visit. That wasn’t what he wanted. “Who are you?” he kept saying. Finally, when we stopped to have a dialogue with him, he said, “You are the first Indians that have ever come here.”

Since 1910, researchers have done a thousand studies on us. One study even measured our noses. It was all there. A very special thing happened on that trip. A young girl had a stack of photos, and as she looked through them, she announced, “Look at this! There is a picture of me.” She had an elk-tooth dress on. It really looked exactly like her, but in fact, it was her grandmother in 1890. It was a dumbfounding experience. We were the first in our tribe to see any of this.

We went into a frenzy. We asked for anything and everything on language. They pulled out a cart with 50 dictionaries on the tribe’s language, written by priests and linguists, including some hand-written dictionaries. The first day, all the kids wanted to go to the mall; by the last day, no one would leave. We spent the entire $2,000 we had raised on copying charges.

We finally understood that the key factor is knowledge of yourself, of your tribe. We had been taught to study Egypt and France, to learn Spanish. No one ever said, “Study yourselves.” This was a big revelation. It was unique. It was five times more interesting than anything we had studied before. Those original students formed our first study group, our first commitment.

Don’t Set Up a Bilingual Program
If you are setting up a language revitalization program, you don’t want to get into bilingual programs. We all speak English too well. Bilingual programs are designed to teach English, not your tribal language. We aren’t against English, but we want to add our own language and give it equal status. We don’t allow slang or shortcuts; we teach the heritage language forms. Our immersion-school children speak high-standard, high-caliber Blackfeet. You can accomplish that through immersion only, not through bilingual education. Bilingual education typically teaches the language 15 minutes a day. Kids who study with bilingual techniques will end up saying, “I can understand the language but can’t speak it.”

Teach the children to speak the language. There are no other rules.
In 1987, we were into the language ourselves, when the college defunded our program. I did not want to go back to teaching college English. We were dreaming in our language, and we became tuned in, back in touch with our language community. In 1987, when no one else would take the language program and when it was not even supported by the tribal council (in council-speak, “I’m with you, but the council won’t go for it”), we took it upon ourselves.

We Are All Relearners
We grew up in homes where grandmothers couldn’t speak English. “Goll darn you,” was all my grandmother could say, and when she did, you’d better watch it! My mother was a Catholic mission school kid, and my dad went to the third grade in government schools. When we researched, we understood why we didn’t learn the language. We were good graduate students. We used all the academic skills that we possessd to seek the reason we could not speak our language despite our home life. The truth we found was that our parents didn’t teach us the language because they didn’t want us to be abused like they were in school.

Education, for Native Americans, is a journey to lead us away from who we really are. It’s no wonder that none of us who had a college education knew our language. In order to get through the educational system, to get through college and be recognized for our work, we had to leave many things behind. Language relearning is a journey back home. When we lose the ability to define ourselves, then other people can define us. The priest defines the percentage of us who go to mass as Christians. The social worker or the statistician tells us that eight or nine of us in a group of ten are alcoholics. We are told that four or five are this, eight or nine are that. We take what other people tell us. In a single room, we can get 15 different definitions of us.

Unless we free our minds, we cannot get a definition of our own. These Blackfeet children will define us. These are our children, our relatives; they are ultimately our definition.

Who we are comes from the language, not from Indian culture. That culture could be construed as beat-up old pickup trucks, buckskin jackets, and powwows. If you want to study culture, go to the museum. At Glenbow Museum they showed us buttons, Indian gloves, and dresses, tons of women’s dresses. No wonder our sisters are wearing blue jeans: the museums have all the dresses.

They did everything to take the language. But when you bring it back, the little kids will make new dresses. The little kids will make new gloves and new shoes. And the next time the majority culture comes to take away the dresses and the gloves, the kids will not give them up.

Get Your Supporting Data
We did a survey based on empirical methodology. It was a random sample, door to door, done by college students. We had the students ask families if they had language in the house, sweetgrass, a drum, and books on Blackfeet. Did they have pictures on the wall about Indians? Did they have pictures of their family displayed or pictures of Michael Jordan and John Wayne? We then selected people in different age groups. We tried to interview every person over the age of 90, then 80, then 70, and now we are doing every person over 60.

We asked the fluent-speaking elders of our language: Did you remain happy people all your years? What was the price, what were the struggles that you endured to use your language? What were the prices you paid?

For the most part, the people responded that they had to stay self-employed. They had no access to the best jobs. But they also realized they were the happiest and most centered in the community.

On our survey, all the people said Mr. Little Plume was the best Blackfeet speaker around. So we went to talk to him, and he said he was taught that Indians shouldn’t use the language. “They tell me that speaking the Blackfeet language is against the religion. I can’t help you,” he said. “OK,” we said. We planned to go back a week later and ask again. In the Blackfeet way, you can say no three times; the fourth time you can’t say no.

Meanwhile, I wondered, why would the Creator say speaking Blackfeet is not good? The Creator gave us each of these languages. The Creator would not say that you would need to use one language over another. So, we went back the second time, and again he said, “I don’t speak the language any more. I’m a rancher.” Well, on the third time, he got pretty nervous. He tried to hide from us. We followed him across the field. He knew what was happening. He asked, “Is this the third time?” He knew the next time he would have to do what we asked. We approached him the fourth time, chased him down, and he said, “I know what you are doing. I will go with you one week. That’s all.”

He never left at the end of the week. He stayed all those years, and he’s now about 68, 69 years old. He’s a very fluent speaker and taught us well. We all sound just like him; we have the same voice.

Immersion School: How We Got Started
In 1994, we went to a bilingual conference. We didn’t want to do bilingual education; we wanted to start an immersion program. But there were no resources, so we went to this bilingual conference. And there we saw these beautiful people, all speaking their language, and we said, “Hey, they look like us. Let’s go sit with them.” They were Native Hawaiians, and they had been down to fewer than 1,000 native speakers. So, they started language nests, called pünana leo in their language, and taught their children their language. They were the first people we ever met who knew what we were seeking, and they shared everything they knew with us. They showed us how to get started. They were mentors, our support, and our guides. They even paid for us to go to Hawaii. And today, they have 28 schools. Last year, they graduated their first class of Native Hawaiian kids who had been in immersion school since preschool.

You have to be very action-oriented. Just act. “But we don’t have land,” you might think. Then go buy land. You buy the land—lock, stock, and barrel. You figure it out. Buy it, then figure out how to put the deal together to do it. We went up to a lady and asked how much she wanted for her land. She said, “Everyone just laughs when I tell them because they say it is too high a price.” We said, “We will bring the check.” She sold us the land on the spot. We did not debate her. She said, “I will do it because of my grandmother who spoke our language. I will sell it for the language school in honor of my grandmother.” We told her we would come back the next day with the money. And that’s what we did. We figured it out ourselves.

Frank Weaselhead and the Sand Hills
We are a different organization from most. Our immersion schools look like schools, but in reality, they are a whole different thing, with very different dynamics and a very different structure. Many of us who helped found and develop these schools will never be fluent in our languages. But because of our work, our babies will become fluent.

There is this old man, Frank Weaselhead, who is a pipe holder, and he comes to visit us often. “Do you folks ever receive a compliment?” he asked us. “No, actually, we receive almost none, from almost no one,” we replied. “That’s good,” he said. “You don’t need compliments. Your compliment will come. Years from now, we will all be gone to the Sand Hills. [The Sand Hills are now called the Porcupine Mountains, and it is the understanding of the Blackfeet people that after this life, we pass to the Shadow Land or the Sand Hills.] We will all be gone to the Sand Hills, and there will be these families here, with young kids, happy kids, and all will speak the language. Some day, someone will wonder how it was that when all other tribes lost their language we all could speak our language. The people will think about this a while and say to each other, ‘I don’t know. Way back then there were some people, and they built the schools, and they put our parents in these schools. That is how they kept our language alive.’ And that will be your compliment.”

Browning, Montana, is a tough place for most people. There’s no Egg McMuffin, no gourmet cheese shop, no Pizza Hut. This is an area that is economically redlined. If you put our zip code, 59417, on any loan application, it will be turned down by a zip search. Doctors and teachers who move in with an AAA credit rating, go to buy a new car or a home, and their credit is suddenly no good. Norwest Bank doesn’t give loans outside of its 120-mile radius. Browning is just outside of its 120-mile radius. These redline situations are on all reserves. That’s why we have no stores here. But we want nice buildings for the school because this is our language. We need to set goals and examples. We need to charge $100 a month for every parent, and each parent must pay a portion of that cost because it gives the parents dignity. Some of our kids are being raised by a single great-grandmother, on social security, no less. Would we say no to that? No, we raise money to pay the difference. We have several children whose parents are in prison. Some kids are raised by foster families. Most of our parents are firefighters who work only during the fire seasons. Still, they pay a portion, and we work like crazy to find the match.

We have a great deal of broken-down stuff on this reserve, the results of half-baked plans and thoughtless initiatives, the ghosts of attempts to revitalize the economy. We have the Blackfeet pencil factory, the defunct livestock center, a racetrack that never had a race. We got $10 million for a sawmill, which is now home to pigeons (birds that are not indigenous; we can’t even eat them). People bought this all to stabilize our tribe, our economy, without realizing that language is the key. Many of these things were imposed on us; many were undigested ideas. The amazing thing is that language is being overlooked as the most critical component.

Language is powerful. Big, burly Blackfeet guys up scouting for elk are like mush when their little boys speak Blackfeet in the woods. We had a situation where two dads took their sons hunting. The boys were a bit nervous, as they knew that the elk were important. They had been taught a love medicine song, and they made a plan to sing the love medicine song to warn the elk that their dads were coming to shoot them. The boys were singing away in the back of the pickup truck and the men heard them singing and talking in Blackfeet. The men had tears in their eyes, especially when they finally figured it out that the boys were singing so elk would stay away. “My child knows this,” they said.

The fathers are inspired, and they are really inclined to come here. These dads don’t want to go anywhere near public schools.

New Words
Our kids are modern kids. They see and experience a lot, and they don’t have Blackfeet words for their experiences. They dance to MTV. We Blackfeet don’t have words for that. But then I think of when the Blackfeet saw the first horses. They didn’t have words for that, either. One Blackfeet man said, “ponoka” (“they are elk”). The other guy said, “Naaaa, those are too big. Those are imita, a dog.” Another guy looked and decided that they were too large to be dogs but that they weren’t quite elks. So he combined the words to get elk-dog, or ponoka imita. We use that word today.

Language evolves, and it is through children that we can make new words. If they don’t know the word, they’ll try to figure it out. The kids at the school wanted to go to Pizza Hut over in the next town. There is no Blackfeet word for pizza, so one boy decided to use the Blackfeet word for rosehips, kina, which are red, tangy, and look like tomatoes. He combined it with napiyeeni, for bread. In Blackfeet, anything with a roof is an oyis. So, the kids came up with kinanapiyeenioyis, rosehip bread-house. Pizza Hut.

The only way to save a language is to teach it to a child. We don’t know the words that they will invent. We don’t know the language of children. But we do know the language rules, the language standards, and the old language philosophies. We have to be very strict in teaching those things so that the children can be inventive in the traditional way.

How We Teach
We took a lot of field notes, and over the course of eight years, we have sixty lessons. At the beginning of the first year, we all started at chapter one. Now we are on chapter nine, but we are stuck at chapter nine because we have first-, second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-person pronoun forms in our language. We can’t discuss that in English, which has no fifth-person form. Fifth-person in Blackfeet is fading away, and only a few are using it. So, if it takes us all year, we will figure it out. We used a sound in the fourth-person singular that was complex, and we finally figured out the sound. Eventually we will make it to chapter 60, but it will take us 10 years. (It took eight years to write the book.) Then the babies will tell us the answers.

In our schools, public humiliation, public squealing, public gatekeeping, and mean encounters are never allowed. All our attempts to speak the language, conduct business in the language, organize in the language, are a part of our attempts to change community dynamics. Language reminds people of the torture inflicted in the past. Language is a touchy subject. It’s not something that many fluent native people initially like to listen to—it produces post-traumatic stress. We remind them, with our very presence, of the horrors inflicted upon them in the mission schools and the government schools and the public schools. We change these dynamics with our behavior and with the behavior of the children.

Three Kids Talking Blackfeet in a Grocery Store
This man was talking at the college, and he said a real strange thing. “I was at the grocery store. A little boy saw another little boy, and they started talking away in Indian. Wow,” he said, “I never saw that. Then there was a little girl, and she came over, and all three of them, they were all talking in Indian. I stood there for so long, I couldn’t bring myself to talk. ‘Listen,’ I said to my wife, ‘did you hear those kids? They were all talking Indian.’ My wife, she said, ‘Oh yeah, those must all be those kids at that Indian school.’”

He said, “That was the most special moment in my life.”

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