Indians Work To Save a Language--and Their Heritage

By Peter West — September 30, 1992 11 min read
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Ted Risingsun seems lost in memories as he stares through the haze of a prairie summer at the grove of cottonwoods where, as a American Indian youngster, he received a roughshod introduction to white culture.

Shortly after the turn of the century, he recalls, Northern Cheyenne children like himself were brought across the plains by their parents to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school here, which stood where the trees now sway, to have their Indian identities stripped away.

Their customary garb replaced by a uniform, the children were placed in the charge of Indian teachers, some of whom had once worked as Army scouts and helped methodically track the Cheyenne north and south across the plains during their last, desperate attempt to escape confinement on the reservation.

Just as systematically, Mr. Risingsun remembers, they strove in the classroom, with the federal government’s blessing, to eradicate any trace of the Cheyenne language from students’ daily lives.

Today, the boarding school has long since passed into history. But the memories of their days there still are bitter ones for the 65-year-old Mr. Risingsun and his friend and former schoolmate Sylvester Knows-His-Gun Sr.

Bitter too is the knowledge that the young Cheyenne of today continue to deny an integral part of their heritage.

When youngsters attending the tribally run schools recently were asked if they spoke their native tongue, Mr. Risingsun told a visitor here, their first instinct was to say no.

“Even if they knew Cheyenne, they said ‘No,’ '' he said. “It reflected the fact that for 60-some years, the policy was that ‘No Cheyenne will be spoken in the schools.’ ''

But efforts by Mr. Risingsun and others to transform the spoken Cheyenne language into a written form suitable for classroom use are seen as hopeful signs that the Cheyenne, and other Indian nations, may be able to preserve their heritage for future generations.

Using Schools To Save Language

The Northern Cheyenne reservation here lies less than 30 miles east of the rolling hills and meandering river where, more than a century ago, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Crow dealt a decisive defeat to elements of the United States 7th Cavalry under Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the battle of the Little Bighorn.

An indication of the strength of the Northern Cheyenne oral tradition is that Mr. Knows-His-Gun and Mr. Risingsun swap their personal theories about the conduct of the battle--and stories of the heroism of their families’ ancestors on that June day in 1876--as if the conflict had happened just the day before.

Both men, driven by their childhood memories of how their own language was debased and devalued, have devoted much of their lives to ensuring that their native tongue survives in a written form that will be taught in the classroom.

“They are two great orators and supporters of maintaining Cheyenne language and culture,’' said Wayne E. Leman, a linguist who, at the request of the Cheyenne tribe, has spent most of the past 15 years helping create a written version of the language.

For, ironically, it is the strong oral tradition among Indian tribes that may doom many of the roughly 150 remaining native languages to virtual extinction as native speakers age and die and few young people seek to carry on the traditions.

Thus, in many ways, the efforts of the Cheyenne to create a written language, encourage its use, and develop a curriculum based on it highlight the difficulties facing Indians who are joining a movement to save their languages through their schools.

Local Control

Since the early 1970’s, Mr. Risingsun, a descendant of a famous Cheyenne chief, has led efforts by the tribal elders to improve educational conditions on the reservation.

The first step was taken when the tribe signed a contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take control of their local schools.

Winning that concession from the government meant that “for the first time, we had a school board that had a say in curriculum and policies in the school,’' Mr. Knows-His-Gun said.

Local control meant that the Cheyenne could contract with linguists such as Mr. Leman to develop a contemporary, written version of the Cheyenne language and the curriculum that now is taught in the local schools.

The government schools were established during the Grant Administration so that the Indians’ “barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted.’'

That policy was not officially repealed until passage of the Native American Languages Act of 1990, which encouraged the use of native languages as a medium of instruction and urged “all educational institutions’’ serving Indians to include native-language instruction in their curricula.

That law, however, contained no funding provisions. The proposed “Native American languages act of 1992,’' S 2044, which the Senate already has passed, would establish federal grants to encourage the development of educational programs designed to preserve native tongues, as well as to compile oral records of existing languages.

A Greater Federal Role?

Observers say that the recent interest at the federal level in preserving native languages may lead to increased funding.

Several recent national reports on Indian education, including one by the U.S. Education Department’s Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, have found an important link between language preservation and culture, and between a student’s cultural identity and educational success.

And delegates to the White House Conference on Indian Education earlier this year stressed the centrality of native-language instruction to a student’s educational success.

Yet, there are few coordinated efforts at the federal level to foster native-language development.

Neither the Education Department nor the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, which together are responsible for administering the federal education programs that reach the roughly 400,000 Native American students nationwide, has developed programs that specifically foster native-language instruction.

Tommy Garrett, a spokesman for the Indian agency, said it fosters native-language programs primarily by encouraging tribes to run their own schools and to develop the curriculum. Some 10 percent of native students attend the agency’s schools.

“By doing this, I believe that we’ve removed most, if not all, institutional obstacles to teaching of the languages in Indian communities,’' Mr. Garrett said.

Similarly, a spokesman for the Education Department’s Indian-education office said that, aside from a demonstration project among the Ojibwe of Northern Michigan, no programs exist specifically to foster native-language instruction.

Bilingual Programs Unhelpful

Neither are bilingual programs of much help. Indian parents were strong supporters of federal bilingual-education legislation in the early 1960’s, but Indians benefit little from the program today, said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

For example, Mr. Leman said, efforts to introduce Cheyenne into the classroom in the 1970’s were largely supported by federal bilingual-education funds, although parents were suspicious of a program that sought to perpetuate a language they had long been told was worthless.

But, Mr. Lyons noted, while the program still pays the salaries of bilingual educators in the schools, there is no funding for the extensive efforts to preserve and annotate Indian languages that are indispensable to developing a language program.

A few states--notably Oklahoma, where the state attorney general has ruled that students may obtain foreign-language credit for studying native languages--have taken steps to assist in the preservation of native tongues.

But, most often, it is the tribes themselves that undertake formal instructional efforts.

The Cherokee of North Carolina, for example, support their language instruction with proceeds from the sales of Indian crafts and souvenirs on the reservations.

Disappearing Languages

Patricia Parker, who administers a cultural-preservation-grant program for the National Park Service, believes that the disappearance of native languages is a “serious problem everywhere’’ in the United States.

Many tribes, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, can count only a handful of native speakers, while in Alaskan villages, some languages are disappearing “faster than a heartbeat,’' Mr. Lyons said.

But, Ms. Parker said, she is encouraged by the eagerness with which native people have embraced her program.

She estimated that 60 percent of the $1 million in grants expected to be made under the program this year will go to tribes that are trying to preserve some aspects of their native languages through precollegiate education and other programs.

“My sense is that it’s not too late,’' Ms. Parker said.

Among the Chickasaw of Oklahoma, for example, 95 percent of the tribe were, until recently, able to speak their native tongue. Over the last five years, however, that percentage has dropped rapidly, prompting tribal officials to seek for ways to maintain fluency among their people.

“They were alarmed enough to apply for a language grant and to develop a language program,’' Ms. Parker noted.

As a result of the school-based program, fluency is beginning to rebound, she and tribal officials added.

A Loss of ‘Wisdom’

“Each time we speak to a group of people, you hear again and again that language is the most critical factor in maintaining our culture,’' noted Shirley Brown, one of the directors of the Oklahoma-based Native American Languages Issues Institute. “We attribute that solely to language being synonymous with, and not separate from, culture.’'

The cultural separateness that accompanies the loss of native languages also leads Indian youths to underachieve in schools, Mr. Lyons of the bilingual association said.

“It’s been the social workers [who] have come to the conclusion that the key to reversing these severe upward trends in suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse, and dropout rates is [reversing the loss of] native languages,’' he said.

An inability to speak their own language, he added, cuts Indian youths off from the wisdom of tribal elders, who serve as repositories of culture.

Added Ms. Parker, “Imagine what you would lose if you lost your language. You wouldn’t know what place names mean, or what that mountain is called. And even if you’d learned a [ceremonial] chant, you wouldn’t have any idea of what you were saying.’'

The report of the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, issued last year, says that among the barriers that Indian children must overcome to succeed is “the loss of native-language ability and the wisdom of the older generations.’'

While the report notes that “learning standard English is essential for school success,’' it also contends that bilingual and multilingual children “have a greater opportunity to develop their analytical and conceptual skills.’'

Furthermore, the report says, if a native language is to be retained for use and continued development, “it must be used in the home and reinforced in the schools.’'

Developing Written Forms

Many observers believe that the key to preserving the largely oral Indian languages is to develop written versions of them.

Although efforts to transpose spoken languages into written ones began as early as the 1800’s with the Cherokee of North Carolina, only a handful of Indian tongues, notably Navajo, have ever been transcribed into written form.

The experience on the Cheyenne reservation is atypical, Mr. Leman notes, because efforts have been under way since the late 1800’s to create a Cheyenne alphabet and grammar.

Through the efforts of Rodolphe Petter, a Mennonite missionary, a workable system of Cheyenne orthography has existed since the turn of this century.

But, Mr. Risingsun added, the original written language--a translation of the New Testament--had a stilted air that to Cheyenne ears sounds as the King James version of the Bible does to modern English-speakers.

More Recent Effort

The more recent effort to create a contemporary language that would be suitable for classroom instruction began in the early 1970’s.

Since that time, a Cheyenne language curriculum, related teaching aids, and a host of other reading materials have been developed in Cheyenne.

The language course is now formally taught in grades K-3 in reservation schools, though it has been used throughout the curriculum at different times with the support of various grants.

One advantage the Cheyenne enjoy over other tribes is that a large pool of qualified, native speakers still exists from which schools can recruit teachers.

Experts note, however, that Indian people themselves are ambivalent about the importance of maintaining their own languages.

Tribal officials of the Northern Cheyenne, Mr. Leman said, make strong public pronouncements about the importance of language, yet parents do not always take heed.

“When the schools do surveys of parents ... they rank teaching Cheyenne language very high,’' he said. “On the other hand, parents, by their own admission, have stopped teaching the language to their children at home.’'

He believes this ambivalence is traceable to the same government policies that Mr. Risingsun and Mr. Knows-His-Gun encountered decades ago.

Most Cheyenne, Mr. Leman said, continue to view English as the language of success and prosperity and as a key to acceptance in the white world.

Mr. Leman also noted that government policy and ingrained habit have combined to instill in many Indians a belief that English is the better language for official matters.

But he also pointed out that many Cheyenne, when they reach their mid-20’s or early 30’s, begin to seek out relatives and friends who speak the language and often become fairly proficient in it.

“At that age, they start to say, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What does it really mean to be an Indian?’ '' Mr. Leman explained.

Mr. Knows-His-Gun, however, said that to wait for thousands of such individual epiphanies is to risk the loss of yet another generation of native speakers.

“My kids don’t know how to talk Cheyenne,’' he said. “And every once in a while they get on me and say, ‘Why didn’t you teach us?’ And I don’t know what to tell them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 edition of Education Week as Indians Work To Save a Language--and Their Heritage


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