A loss for words 

Montana tribes have been fighting for over a decade to save their Native languages, but time is not on their side.

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Last fall, the immersion school community in Montana and beyond lost one of its pioneers. Harvard-educated author, teacher and Blackfeet member Darrell Kipp died in late November at the age of 69, leaving behind a legacy that comes up in nearly every conversation about Native language revitalization. His mark was most notably left in the form of the Piegan Institute in Browning, the state’s oldest immersion program, which he cofounded nearly three decades ago.

“The Piegan Institute was established in 1987 to research, promote and revitalize the Blackfoot language of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana,” says Kipp’s son Darren, a filmmaker who inherited his father’s passion for reviving Blackfeet culture. His father had many mottos, Darren adds, but one that continues to resonate was his desire to bring prestige to his language.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

“Don’t house it in an old, rundown building,” Darren remembers his father saying. “Don’t put it in an old, forgotten space. Put it in a beautiful building in a beautiful space because it’s your language.”

Under Kipp’s direction, the institute took to collecting, archiving and preserving the Blackfoot language as well as running the private Cuts Wood School. It was largely Kipp who inspired parents like Joycelyn DesRosier to become more involved in educating young tribal members. DesRosier first enrolled her youngest son in Cuts Wood in the mid ’90s, when the school was still requiring parents to attend nightly classes to promote language use in a family setting. Every morning, staff would stop DesRosier at the school’s door, informing her that there was no English allowed inside the building. She promptly volunteered to help, working as a silent teacher for her first year before undertaking basic language instruction. She worked for seven years under a master teacher, building up the pronunciation skills and confidence needed to enter the classroom.

“Darrell Kipp always just told me and reminded me, ‘You don’t need permission to speak our language,’” she says. “‘It’s our language. We own it.’”

DesRosier is now the lead teacher at Cuts Wood. Two of her sons have graduated from the program and one of them, 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jesse DesRosier, is currently taking linguistics and teaching courses at the University of Montana with the goal of returning to Piegan as an instructor. He grew up hearing the language spoken by his adopted grandfather, and feels it would be selfish not to give back to the revitalization effort. That, he says, is the best way to honor Kipp’s legacy.

“He had a very laid-back mentality and a very no-worries attitude,” Jesse says. “It reminds me of a word in our language: ‘matkowakii.’ It’s kind of like the ‘hakuna matata’ of our language. There’s no worries. And I think if I had to describe him in one word, that would be him.”

Kipp’s influence stretches well beyond the borders of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Chandler first met him after obtaining her master’s degree from Montana State University. Devoted to the notion of opening White Clay, she followed Kipp and several other language practitioners to New Zealand to study how the Maori people had developed their own cultural immersion education system. Kipp’s immersion blueprint was inevitably what Chandler turned to as a model for White Clay.

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  • Piegan Institute
  • Blackfeet member and Piegan Institute founder Darrell Kipp was hailed by many as a pioneer in Native language preservation. He passed away late last year at age 69.

“Everything I do is kinda modeled after Darrell,” she says. “One of his mottos—he had about 10 of them—was ‘just do it.’ He said, ‘Lynette, you can sit around worrying about funding forever. You can sit around worrying about where your building will be, who will be teaching in it. Just do it. It’s not going to get done. You can plan for five years and then you have five years lost where you didn’t help your language live.’”

Like so many others, Kipp recognized the immediacy facing Native languages across the United States. Swift intervention is frequently cited as the key in making sure the NCAI’s worst-case prediction doesn’t come true over the next few decades. Kipp’s death was a tremendous loss to the revitalization movement—“There will never, ever be another Darrell Kipp,” Chandler says—but ultimately the responsibility will fall to the next generation of fluent speakers. In some cases, it already has.

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