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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There’s a word in Blackfoot for Lower Saint Mary Lake just outside Glacier National Park. It’s “pahtoomoh ksikimii,” or “hole at the bottom of the lake,” and for Jesse DesRosier, it says something not only about the lake but about his tribe’s connection to the land. There’s a natural spring under the lake, he explains, and the Blackfoot language reflects that in the same way its rhythm and sounds reflect the country in which DesRosier grew up, and in which his ancestors lived for untold generations.

“This is the language of this part of the country,” DesRosier says. “This flow and this rhythm and this language is what’s been here for thousands of years. This is what’s in the wind, this is what’s in the environment, this is what’s been here longer than any other language. So in order for us to understand our surroundings, why not learn the language of the land?”

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

Since his parents enrolled him in the Piegan Institute’s immersion program at age 8, DesRosier hasn’t taken much of a break. His mother remembers DesRosier and his brother as young kids coming back from the school and requiring the household to speak nothing but Blackfoot for whole days. The longest he’s been away from fellow speakers was his four-year stint in the Marine Corps, he says. He felt a bit rusty when he returned, but after hearing a few sentences, the language came flooding back to him and “brought my spirit home.”

DesRosier has since dedicated his college education to building the foundation necessary to return to the Blackfeet reservation and pass that identity on to others of his tribe. Their elders are dying, he says, and they don’t have time to sit back and wait. “The urgency is upon us.”

As precarious as the situation was when Kipp first founded the Piegan Institute, the next wave of potential speakers has, for the most part, embraced the revitalization effort. DesRosier now sees Facebook posts and text messages from tribal members written in Blackfoot. The Blackfeet Community College promotes fluency through a language arts degree, and has begun integrating the language into new technologies. Last year, the college developed the first ever Native language app for smartphones, an easy-to-use Blackfoot reference guide geared specifically for a younger generation.

“It’s ironic how the Industrial Revolution was a key factor in breaking Indians down, but now it’s a vehicle to move the language forward,” DesRosier says. “It does ultimately have to be spoken, though, and passed down orally, mouth to ear.”

Up in St. Ignatius, Chaney Bell’s new group of Salish students are all under the age of 50—a critical strategy, Bell says, in making sure fluency doesn’t die along with the tribe’s elders. Several students, like Travis Arlee, have young families who have themselves expressed interest in learning the language. Arlee grew up with a fluent father, but remembers shying away from speaking it himself. When his daughter turned 4, he enrolled her in Nkwusm.

“It really encouraged me to get back into it,” he says. “What we learn here I bring home, and I work with my three kids and my wife.”

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  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jesse DesRosier, 25, attended the Cuts Wood School in Browning for most of his childhood. He’s now well-versed in the Blackfoot language, and hopes to return to the reservation to help instruct other future speakers.

The culture committee’s program may only be a few months old, but it’s already gaining ground. Elders like Pat Pierre, Stephen Small Salmon and Felicity McDonald have visited the class regularly to conduct full-on immersion sessions. Students have access to a wealth of educational material—dictionaries, CDs, online resources—that never existed when Bell first gravitated to the language in the ’90s. Compared to the struggles Nkwusm faced for years, Bell feels the adult immersion program has a leg up.

“We didn’t have nothing,” he says. “I remember listening to the same thing every night of a fluent speaker we recorded because I didn’t have anything. We look at it today, people have a lot more opportunity, there’s a lot more exposure, there’s a lot more talk about the importance.”

Most importantly, Bell’s students unanimously agree, they have 20-year-old Vance Home Gun in their fold. Home Gun grew up surrounded by Salish tradition, and already has enough command of the language to converse comfortably with elders. The group teases the soft-spoken young man, referring to him as an elder in his own right and explaining that at tribal events he’s often seen sitting at the center of a much older crowd. Yet they defer to him often, acknowledging that he is wise for his years.

“Vance brings a lot of hope to our fluent speakers,” Bell says. “Vance is already at a level where he can communicate really well with them. It gives them hope that there are people who are learning this and can carry it on.”

Home Gun first developed his passion for preserving the language at age 11, when his aunt took him to a Salish language camp. His efforts since then, teaching at high schools and working with tribal officials, won him recognition last year as the Center for Native American Youth’s Champion of Change. Home Gun says he maintains regular contact with various elders. Recently, he was speaking with Felicity McDonald, an elder now in her early 90s, about the fact that many potential Salish speakers seem to have given up too easily, taking for granted how complex the language truly is. Home Gun, like DesRosier, may offer promise. But he believes the urgency is still there.

“My teachers are pretty much gone,” Home Gun says. “The only one I’ve got left is probably my grandma.”

At Nkwusm, Small Salmon is unsure how many of the preschoolers from his morning lesson will make it through to the eighth grade. Many leave before graduating the program, he says, either to attend public school or to relocate to new towns with parents who get new jobs. Pierre is hopeful that someday, Nkwusm will have the funding and ability to convert a room now used for storage into a high school classroom. Retaining students for four more years could be the next step in building up the ranks of fluent speakers.

For now, Pierre’s vision of a revitalized Salish language rests on a few young shoulders like Nicole Perry, a recent Nkwusm graduate who still visits the school from time to time. She isn’t fluent, but she can hold a conversation with her former teachers in local stores or on the street. She plans to keep learning, to go to college and to study other languages that are in danger of disappearing. She also intends to pass on what she knows to nieces, nephews and any children she might have in the future.

“The language is the glue of a tribe,” Perry says. “If you lose the language, you lose just about everything else.”

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