The lost art of listening 

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

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But at the time, no one knew how to save an endangered language. William J. C'Hair describes a disastrous early language camp. He and other fluent Arapaho speakers barricaded an area on the reservation with signs that said "Arapaho only." They cooked food, and waited for interested tribal members to arrive. Within hours, curious, hungry Arapaho overran the camp—speaking only English.

White teachers outnumbered Native teachers in reservation classrooms, as they largely do today. However, disagreements about Arapaho language instruction in the reservation's Western-style public schools divided Indian and non-Indian faculty alike. For teachers already struggling to help their students meet state standards in English and math, Arapaho seemed like an extravagance. Complicating things further was the fact that no proven method for teaching Arapaho existed in the '70s, partly because the language lacked a written form until 1982. Fluent Arapaho speakers asked to teach the language rarely had training in teaching. Their students memorized lists of plant and animal names, but did not learn how to "think" in Arapaho.

Many Arapaho see the loss of their language as a kind of spiritual test. Without it, the tribe's ceremonies can't be conducted correctly. "You lose the language, you lose the soul," says Sergio Maldonaldo, director of tribal education. Mike Redman, who teaches Arapaho at the elementary-school level, believes that if the Arapaho lose their language, it will be because the Creator deemed them unworthy of it. He nearly came to blows with another Arapaho involved in education this spring over an argument about how his program is administered. Money and politics, he says, have corrupted the tribe: "Arapahos are being anti-Arapaho. The government did a good job."

click to enlarge University of Montana professor Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning has worked with the Northern Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation for 17 years. He once dubbed the movie Bambi in Arapaho in an effort to teach the language to younger members of the tribe.
  • University of Montana professor Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning has worked with the Northern Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation for 17 years. He once dubbed the movie Bambi in Arapaho in an effort to teach the language to younger members of the tribe.

On a school day last year, squealing, shouting preschoolers riding red and yellow bouncy balls stampede across the Hinono'eitiino'oowu' (Arapaho Language Lodge) language immersion classroom in Ethete. They swarm strangers, grinning gap-toothed grins, and show off what they know in Arapaho, pointing to the images that cover the walls from floor to ceiling—raindrops, stars, turtles, a rabbit jumping over a fence, a couple dancing.

"Come to my workshop, and I'll teach you 16 phrases in Arapaho in 10 minutes," Greymorning had told me over the phone as I began to research language revitalization efforts on the Wind River Reservation. Greymorning left the reservation in 1994 for UM. He still advises the immersion programs from afar. Over the years, however, he has been consistently frustrated by what he considers teachers' and administrators' failure to implement his methods for teaching Arapaho. So in 2009, Greymorning decided to make what he described as a "final" trip from Montana to conduct yet another teach-in on the Wind River Reservation.

Hands on hips, he stares down the small group assembled before him, talking about his immersion program at UM.

"In my [college] classroom, after nine hours, students have learned 200 phrases they can manipulate in three different ways," he says. "Can any of the kids who graduate from schools here do that?"

The teachers murmur and shake their heads. No. This is unheard of in the immersion or public school programs—even for students who've taken Arapaho from kindergarten through high school.

Greymorning is convinced that the problem lies in teachers' failure to implement his curriculum. His system doesn't introduce writing and reading until students have mastered speaking. This grates against standard methods of teaching a second language, especially in the public school system, which relies heavily on written assessment. Greymorning also forbids the use of English as a crutch—perhaps the hardest rule for teachers to adhere to, particularly if their own knowledge of Arapaho is not solid.

"It's like you're swimming around in circles," says Greymorning, referring to teachers' tendency to lapse into English. "I'm here trying to throw you a rope, but you keep trying to do the same thing that isn't working."

The teachers stare back at Greymorning, some of them balefully. One commanding middle-aged woman makes a point of talking to her neighbor as he speaks. Easy for you to say, her attitude suggests. You try controlling a classroom full of rowdy preschoolers without ever using English. (Greymorning gets a frosty reception from some people on the reservation. "Greymorning left," they say, suggesting that if he'd really wanted to help, he would have stayed.)

Unfazed, Greymorning suddenly tells me to stand up. He takes me over to a wall of pictures that are grouped according to his system, which is tailored to Arapaho grammar. A few of the older ladies smile encouragement.

Greymorning points at the first image—a little girl—and says, distinctly: "Hiseihihi'." "Hiseihihi,'" I repeat, palms sweating. "Ci' nihii beeseitii," says Greymorning. Try again, his expression says, but louder, more confidently. After we go through the first set of words, Greymorning quizzes me. I slap my hand down on the images as he names them, repeating the words again. It feels like a game—a far cry from filling in bubbles on multiple-choice tests.

As we build quickly from four to 16 words, however, I start to make mistakes. "Wo'ooo," the word for "cat," is hard to pronounce—the vowels trip over themselves, surging forward. When I can't figure out what Greymorning means by "3i'okuuto'oo," the Arapaho word for "chair," he tells me in Arapaho to sit down in a chair, and then to stand up. At first, I can't figure out what he's referring to. Then it clicks: In Arapaho, the word "sit"—"ceenoku"—is related to the word "chair." I point to the image of the chair and bask in applause, feeling like a precocious 5-year-old.

Next, Greymorning quizzes Robert Hall, a 20-year-old Blackfoot man who has studied Arapaho with him at UM. As the older people listen to Hall—who isn't even Arapaho—give life and breath to their language, the atmosphere in the room thaws.

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