- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

BROWNING, Montana — As the Blackfeet elders neared their deaths, it was just a matter of time before their people's language disappeared forever.

Years of aggressive government policies aimed at eradicating every trace of American Indian languages and customs had left only a few hundred aging speakers knowing the language.

Not so fast, says Chelle LaFromboise.

The soft-eyed 11-year-old, who prefers to be called Ispitaki, or Tall Woman, is one of 30 students in a new kindergarten through eighth-grade school on the reservation conducted almost entirely in Blackfoot from basic greetings to geometry, botany and art.

Chelle and her classmates may be saving the language from extinction and they are proud of it.

"The language is just part of me, I guess," she said. "It's my culture, and I want to learn about it and teach my children and grandchildren, so they can teach other kids."

The Nizipuhwahsin (Our Original Language) Center is at the forefront of a cultural and economic revival that has breathed new life into Browning, long just another depressed reservation town where alcohol dulled the hardships of poverty.

Blackfeet public school administrators and teachers have begun a new program to incorporate Blackfeet and Indian culture, history, art and language into the curriculum.

Meanwhile, the tribal government has become more active in the local economy, buying a bottled water company and taking over a cable company. A Blackfeet-owned bank formed in 1987, the first of its kind in the United States, has been instrumental in sparking the growth of local businesses and homes.

One Blackfeet woman, Elouise Cobell, has spearheaded the biggest class-action lawsuit ever by Indians against the U.S. government, for billions of dollars in mismanaged trust funds.

"The move to Westernize and assimilate Indians into mainstream society took its toll," said JoAnn Chase, former director of the National Congress of Native Americans. "Now, people are coming back and saying, 'Wait a second, we're not going to let our languages and cultures die.'"

To varying degrees, similar revivals are budding on reservations across the United States, she says. On her own Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara tribes acquired a herd of buffalo, which children are learning to care for in an after-school program.

At the heart of efforts to revitalize Indian life is the movement to save indigenous languages.

Language recovery programs have been initiated on reservations across the country in recent years. Darrell Kipp, director of the Nizipuhwahsin Center, has hosted representatives from 60 other reservations who have come seeking help in starting similar schools.

Of the between 300 and 600 languages once spoken in North America, 211 are still alive, and a mere 32 of them are spoken by all age groups. In most cases only elders still speak the language, according to Inee Slaughter, director of the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Indigenous Language Institute.

Efforts to defend the country's indigenous languages began some two decades ago, said Miss Slaughter, but they really gained momentum in the past 10 years. This was spurred in part by the Native American Languages Act, passed by Congress in 1990.

The legislation mandates that the government preserve and promote the right of Indians to use and develop their indigenous languages. Two years later, additional legislation established annual grants for language recovery programs, which continue today.

This is a drastic departure from the U.S. government's traditionally hostile stance toward Indian language and customs.

In an 1887 report delivered to the secretary of the interior, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C. Atkins states: "the instruction of the Indians in the vernacular is not only of no use to them, but is detrimental to the cause of their education and civilization and no school will be permitted on the reservation in which the English language is not exclusively taught."

Until the 1950s, the government forced American Indian children to attend federal boarding schools, in some cases literally tearing them from their parents.

On the Blackfeet reservation, children were sent to a school run by Catholic missionaries, who forced them to wear Western clothes and punished them for speaking Blackfoot.

For Darrell Kipp, director of the Nizipuhwahsin Center, the revival on the reservation means reclaiming the self-esteem stripped from the Blackfeet during that period.

As Mr. Kipp strolls through a classroom greeting children, he introduces one after the next as "beautiful" and "smart." His teachers urge them to stand up straight and to avoid stooping and other "victim postures," common at the reservation's public schools, where the dropout rate for high school students is around 60 percent.

"The self-esteem of children here is different compared to the public school system," said Arthur Westwolf, a native speaker and teacher at the Nizipuhwahsin Center who worked previously for five years as a teaching assistant at the Browning public high school. "These kids are outspoken. They'll come right up to you and make eye contact."

In some Indian cultures, direct eye contact has been considered rude. Mr. Kipp believes this self-confidence will serve these children well as they come of age amid the bleak economic conditions of the reservation. The unemployment rate averages more than 50 percent compared with a 5.8 percent national rate. In winter, when the forest-fire-fighting season ends and jobs in construction and at nearby Glacier National Park dry up, the rate rises as high as 70 percent.

Between January and March, more than a quarter of the reservation lives off food stamps and other government subsidies. And while locals say Browning's streets are cleaner and busier than ever, boarded-up buildings, junk-filled yards and burnt-out cars still litter the cityscape. Manufactured homes have emerged among trailers and run-down government housing, but nearly 34 percent of the reservation's some 10,000 residents fall below the poverty line, which would place the reservation among the poorest 45 counties in the United States.

In a town with such pressing economic need, it wasn't easy convincing potential donors, and even some Blackfeet, of the merits of saving the language. When Mr. Kipp was struggling to get language recovery efforts off the ground in the mid-'80s, he encountered some of the stiffest resistance at home on the reservation.

Now, as the Nizipuhwahsin Center enters its ninth year, he is no longer faced with the challenge of recruiting new students, but with deciding which ones to admit and which ones to put on an expanding waiting list.

"People recognize that we're creating superhealthy children who know their language extremely well, who are self-confident," said Mr. Kipp, a large man with a long ponytail and a broad smile. "These children will be the ones who identify the Blackfeet in the future, they'll be the leadership cadre of the future."

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