Learning Lodge Recaptures Power of Language

Nov 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 13-2: The Power of Partnerships, Tribal College News

More than 180 people of all ages gathered in the Big Horn Mountains to share their enthusiasm and ideas for revitalizing Native languages. Photo by Lanny Real Bird

The Learning Lodge Institute marked its fourth year with a camp in July high in the Big Horn Mountains near the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming. Created by seven tribal colleges in Montana with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the institute focuses on increasing fluency in the 11 Native languages used in the state.

Each year the institute hosts a summertime gathering to showcase the best practices of the seven tribal colleges (Blackfeet Community College, Dull Knife Memorial College, Fort Belknap College, Fort Peck Community College, Little Big Horn College, Salish Kootenai College, and Stone Child College). This year the event also featured a storytelling championship, which was won by Donna Howe, a Piegan Indian teaching on the Crow Reservation.

Outsiders usually focus upon the futility of saving Native languages, believing it is only a matter of time before they disappear. Indeed, the tribal colleges created the institute because of the dramatic loss of language in younger tribal members. For example, a contest was held on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation to identify the youngest Cheyenne speaker; the winner was 47 years old.

However, the tribes involved in the ambitious collaborative effort are doing more than documenting dying languages. They are producing speakers, according to Lanny Real Bird, Ed.D., director of the institute. The Montessori methods used on the Fort Peck Reservation are producing young elementary school-aged Dakota speakers. The Blackfeet have had great success at the tribal college and with community institutions such as the Piegan Institute, which has introduced 50 new fluent speakers into the culture.  Immersion methods on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations have given learners more time, experience, contact, and interaction with their languages, according to Real Bird, who is also one of the Crow teachers.

The language advocates would like to be doing more, of course. Johnny Arlee of Salish Kootenai College would like to work with students for more than 15 days out of the year, but he told the Denver Post that the language program has come a long way since the tribe initiated it in 1975.

The Kellogg-funded initiative allowed each tribe to utilize its own traditional educational structure and knowledge base. Some used oral tradition, and others used mentoring. Little Big Horn College teachers combined counseling with instruction to release the language that older speakers had “forgotten” due to shame induced by their boarding school experiences, Real Bird said. On the Rocky Boy Reservation, Cree elders documented the medicinal qualities of plants important to their culture.

“There is a tremendous need in these communities to continue the projects, research, and practices,” Real Bird said. He hopes to raise funds to continue the Language Lodge Institute after the Kellogg funding ends this year.

“I believe it is very possible to save a language. It is not going to happen overnight. It could take 7-10 years for significant outcomes to be measured. My opinion is based on research on the Maori (New Zealand) and the Native Hawaiians. Their language immersion techniques took approximately 12 years to have a solid foundation and to gain momentum in the communities…. Yet we have developed good approaches that can be applied,” he said.

Real Bird praised the language leaders on the various Montana reservations, who are also busy raising funds to continue the work: “Their hearts and dedication and their obligation is to perpetuate their Native language and cultural practices.”

“It is assumed that when cultural changes and invasions affected American Indian nations, some practices and traditions were lost. In the view of Crow elders and other tribal elders, they were not,” Real Bird said in his newsletter. “Just because a song may have been forgotten or a medicine bundle disposed of, the power is still dormant somewhere in the wind, water, earth, or fire.

“They come back alive in dreams and visions. What might be thought to be lost is somewhere in the network of high winds and clouds of atmosphere or the isolated mountain peaks across the land…. The power is still there,” he said.  

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