Beyond words 

Honoring the life of a Blackfeet language advocate

Nearing midnight on Nov. 24, the thousand or so people who had come to the Cuts Wood School in Browning had dwindled to a dozen. They had come throughout the day to pay respect to Darrell Kipp, who died three days earlier at the age of 69. Everyone who arrived was fed heaping plates of beef and ham with sides of baked beans and mac and cheese salad, topped with heavy slabs of fry bread. At the urging of Roberta Kipp, Darrell's wife of 45 years, most left balancing a stack of dinners to take home to family and neighbors who could use a hot meal.

One of the mourners still in attendance was Kipp's 72-year-old cousin, Cynthia Kipp. She sat in a fold-out chair in front of the open casket, thumbing through a Blackfeet language app on a nephew's smartphone. She listened to the recorded voice, repeating the phrases. "You know," she said, "learning our language as an adult was so hard. I really struggled. I spoke Blackfeet as a child, but then they sent me away to Kansas. When I finally came home, I only knew English. I once asked my mother why they didn't teach us Blackfeet again. She said, 'Because we loved you.' They thought they were doing the right thing, you see. Darrell changed all that."

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According to the Salish leader Kevin Howlett, Kipp was first inspired to study the Blackfeet language because he was having trouble communicating with his aging mother. The effort it took to re-learn his native tongue led Kipp to the realization that the Blackfeet language was in danger of disappearing altogether. During a life's work on behalf of Native peoples and their culture, this would become his signal effort—preserving Blackfeet and other indigenous languages.

Internationally and nationally, Kipp's work on behalf of Native languages would coalesce around the Piegan Institute, which he co-created in 1987. The institute has produced books, films, pamphlets and teaching aids from its headquarters on the Blackfeet Nation ever since. Kipp traveled across the country and the world, as far away as the Arctic Circle, meeting with Native peoples to energize and inform their efforts at preserving what he called "the truth keeper" for Native cultures—their indigenous language.

In Browning, in the homeland of the Blackfeet, Kipp's most visible and tangible accomplishment was the co-founding of the private Cuts Wood School, a K-8 Blackfeet language immersion school that has been producing Blackfeet-fluent students since 1995. The school's curriculum and methods have provided a model for other Native language immersion schools across the Americas.

By 3 a.m. on Nov. 25, only five men remained at the Cuts Wood School. One of them was 44-year-old Darren Kipp, Darrell's son and a documentary filmmaker. Most recently, he produced the film Indian Relay, currently airing on PBS. The other four men were all in their early 20s.

"They were some of my father's first students at the school," Darren Kipp explained. "They're honoring him by keeping vigil."

As they had the night before, the group sat at a table playing hands of gin rummy and reminiscing about Darrell with his casket in the next room, surrounded by flower arrangements and sacred herbs.

Around 4 o'clock, loud voices were heard outside. A man and a woman came through the door. Plates of food and hot coffee were found in the Cuts Wood kitchen, and the group of mourners expanded by two for a while.

By 5, the game of cards had played out and Darren and the boys began stacking the chairs and tables against the walls of the three large, open rooms that make up the bulk of the Cuts Wood School. They methodically swept and mopped the wood floors, took out the trash and shook the prairie dirt out of the door mats. When the floors dried, they replaced the chairs and tables, readying the school for the morning's visitation.

There were many other powerful moments over the two days of Native American ceremonies and Catholic sacraments that made up the celebration of Darrell Kipp's life. But perhaps the greatest testament to his accomplishments was exemplified by the quiet and contented discipline of his son and the four former students who kept him company through two long nights at the Cuts Wood School.

As the sun finally rose, the first of the aunties began arriving loaded with huge sheet cakes, cookies and muffins. Having fulfilled their responsibility, the five men headed home to shower and get dressed for the funeral.

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