‘It is our identity’

MSU Bozeman hosts Indigenous language speakers
Thursday, October 4, 2018

Photo by Carl Danelski

Joseph McGeswick, Ph.D., lectures Friday in Bozeman on the damaging effects of stereotyping American Indian groups. In observance of American Indian Heritage Day, a series of lectures were held by nearly a dozen educators.

In observance of American Indian Heritage Day, a professional development workshop was curated at the Montana State University Bozeman campus, aimed at creating a better understanding of language revitalization.

The event, called “Revitalizing and Maintaining Indigenous Languages,” featured almost a dozen speakers of almost as many languages, and curator Jioanna Carjuzaa introduced the first of the speakers with a playful joke. “When I said to Dr. Littlebear that Dr. Real Bird would like say the opening prayer, he said to me, ‘He can do it, only if he does it in Cheyenne.’”

Dr. Richard Littlebear of Busby encourages the continued use of the Cheyenne language, in addition to all Native languages. As the President and Interim Dean of Cultural Affairs at Chief Dull Knife College, Dr. Littlebear is familiar with the challenges of language revitalization. After all, he was the one responsible for setting the standards for Class 7 certification, a rigorous test, and a mandatory step for all those interested in teaching Cheyenne. He himself has passed the test and yet he sees more work to be done in the field.

“For the previous 200 years prior to [Class 7] legislation, all the efforts were aimed at suppressing and oppressing: Suppressing the language and oppressing the people who spoke that language,” Dr. Littlebear explained. He was steadfast in his reasoning behind continuing to speak his native language and encouraging others to do so. “It is our identity,” he said, “Our languages are who we are. And in this United States, our identities are very important.”

Dr. Ku- ūKahakalau, founder of the Ku-A-Kanaka Indigenous Institute for Language and Culture in Hawaii, gave insight into other challenges faced by educators. Because all of the native speakers of her Hawaiian language are deceased, she and her children consider themselves to be additional language speakers of their native language, rather than native speakers.

Dr. Kahakalau opened her presentation by singing in Hawaiian, greeting all the deities, ancestors and all living things in the room down to the smallest spider. She went on to trace the difficult journey of her own native language, from seeing it nearly vanish to revitalizing its presence in the classroom.

In terms of future generations of Hawaiian speakers, Kahakalau said, “They can know how to do relative clauses and all those fancy grammatical constructions, but if they don’t know how to greet an elder, then they don’t know their language.”

Dr. Lanny Real Bird also moved beyond a traditional understanding of language in his lecture, titled “Reflections on Revitalizing and Reinforcing Native Languages and Cultures.” Dr. Real Bird, who lives on the Crow Reservation and taught at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, focused on the holistic realm of learning.

“We have a literacy that isn’t based in publications,” he explained. “We have a literacy that is based in nature.”

He went on to list examples, from the position of the moon, to the behavior of flocks of birds or even cosmological events. “That in itself, folks, is literacy. And I wanted to present that as a formal protocol to understanding our people.”

Four teachers from the Yu’pik region of Alaska shared their ideas and the results of an effort to write children’s books, utilizing basic grammar of Yugtun, their ancestral language. As a PowerPoint displayed the colorful contents of a book, Sally Angass’aq Samson of the Pugtallgutkellriit Research Collaborative began by acknowledging her parents by name. She confessed that this was done in part to calm her nerves before the audience. Samson’s book, Uqiqurnariuq, translates to, “It’s time for a seal party.”

“I chose the theme of celebration,” Samson explained. “Seal parties are traditional activities carried out in Nelson Island, a coastal region. Seal parties were originally developed to share the catch with widows and those who were in need or who did not have the means to go out seal hunting. And this tradition is still carried out today.”

Sharing and family were common themes throughout the workshop. Dr. Kahakalau also stressed the importance of passing on these values to the younger generations. “They need to know how to introduce themselves, by connecting themselves to their genealogies, by connecting themselves to the places that have shaped who they are,” she said.

Dr. Lenore Stiffarm of the Aa Nii Nation, or Gros Ventre, is the first tribal citizen from Fort Belknap to receive a doctoral degree. During her presentation, she spoke about historical trauma, about pain and fear in terms of how her native language was beat out of her father, Ah Hock Nak, while he attended boarding school. As a result of this trauma, he hesitated to pass on his knowledge of the language: “What if the white man gets crazy again and beats the language out of my grandchildren?”

Today, there are two fluent speakers in the Aa Nii Nation. Stiffarm connected this tragic history to the concept of clashing worldviews. “The linear structure versus the holistic way,” she said. “To me, these are some of the real clashing worldviews that we experience.”

The second day of the workshop, Joseph Mc-Geshick, Ph.D., articulated what further implementation could be used in addition to language revitalization and an amended history curriculum in schools, and that was to give people a voice, a way of being heard.

“And it’s good to share with people who are not part of the academics,” he said. “They might be business persons, they might work in a hospital, they’re already in the mainstream, but they all have their traditional backgrounds.”

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