Tribal College Offers Elders’ Teaching Class

May 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-4: Health and Healing, Tribal College News


TEACHING ARAPAHO. Nelson White presents a graduation certificate to Delight O’Neal after completion of her education class. Photo by Sara Wiles

Wind River Tribal College (WRTC, Ethete, WY) has partnered with the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders to teach the Arapaho language more effectively to all ages on the Wind River Reservation. Their approach involves teacher training for elders, college classroom instruction, and the tribal radio station.

When WRTC President Marlin Spoonhunter (Arapaho) returned to the reservation and took over the reins of the tribal college 2 years ago, he talked with schools and linguists about why there were not more people speaking Arapaho after years of language revitalization efforts there. The schools told him, “The elders who know the language don’t know how to teach.”

To Spoonhunter, that was not surprising. “They were not trained to teach.” On the other hand, many younger tribal members have advanced degrees in education. Consequently, the tribal college now pairs teachers with elders in its language classes.

The college also initiated elder teacher training classes to give the language experts an introduction to teaching techniques. The first day of class, the teacher training students shared the traumatic experiences when they went to school in the 1940s and ‘50s and were punished for daring to use Arapaho. A total of 20 elders enrolled, and 17 completed the 3-hour class for college credit.

At the college, six students take the Arapaho II class, many of them recent high school graduates. The instructor, Tillie M. Jenkins, uses a variation of the game of Jeopardy to keep the students’ interest high.

Arapaho is in the Algonquian family of languages. It is considered difficult because the sounds and sentence structure are so different than English. According to figures compiled by the college, only 242 people are fluent in Northern Arapaho, and all of them are 55 years old or older. This represents 2.75% of the 8000 enrolled Northern Arapaho.

Students in the Arapaho I class explained their interest in the language. April Guina said she uses her Arapaho mostly at the college. Her husband and children speak Shoshone. “I can’t talk to them,” she said with a laugh. When she went to high school off the reservation, she took Spanish rather than German or French “because they are brown like me.”

Randee Pongah said she wanted to be able to talk with her elders. “I teased my grandmother and grandfather because I thought they were always talking secrets… We need to know it.” Kayla Lincoln said she has a son, and she wants him to be fluent. “Without the language, we don’t have anything.”

Jenkins’s students in the Arapaho I class made a CD, parts of which are used on the tribal radio station several times a day. “Little kids listen, and they tell me they want to learn so they can be on the radio,” Jenkins said.

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