UW Completes Northern Arapaho Language Revitalization Project

June 18, 2008

Amy Crowell and Ronda Norlock use the same word to describe the Northern Arapaho language: Beautiful.

What they and others at the University of Wyoming are doing to help rejuvenate the language is equally as beautiful.

Two years after Crowell wrote and submitted a pair of grants to help launch the Northern Arapaho Language Revitalization Project, Norlock and two of her UW classmates have put the finishing touches on a set of instructional DVDs and a workbook that will be used to teach the language -- in Wyoming and across the country -- for years to come.

"The tribe is excited about this project, and that's what's so exciting to me," says Norlock. "I wanted this to be just the way they wanted it, because it's their language. Their language was taken away from them, their voice lost, and by revitalizing it, I think we can help strengthen their people."

Norlock will be among the UW contingent that will present the DVDs and workbooks at the Northern Arapaho Language Symposium June 24-27 in Arapahoe on the Wind River Reservation. The symposium is sponsored by UW American Indian Studies (AIS) Program, Northern Arapaho Language and Culture Commission, Northern Arapaho Business Council, Northern Arapaho Gaming Agency, Sky People Higher Education and Arapaho Ranch.

"The language DVDs will be usable in every learning institution that serves Northern Arapaho students, both on and off of the Wind River Reservation," says Wayne C'Hair, a tribal elder and instructor of Northern Arapaho language at UW. "I feel that this project is very important to our tribal members, and we plan to distribute the DVDs to households to assist us with our home revitalization efforts.

"The completed project is remarkable, and I commend each of the students for their outstanding work, dedication and commitment."

The effort to revive indigenous languages, such as Northern Arapaho, has become a race against time. There are about 175 native languages still spoken in the United States but nearly 90 percent, or 155 languages, are spoken only by adults who are not actively working to pass the language on to the next generation, according to the National Alliance to Save Native Languages.

As the older generation dies off, so will the language.

The purge of native languages began in the late 18th century, when U.S. reformers attempted to assimilate Indians into society and adopted a practice of educating native children at boarding schools.

At the schools, native children were taught Christianity rather than their native religion and strictly forbidden to speak in their own tongue, spawning a generational gap in teaching the language.

"If we can help save their language," Crowell says, "that may be healing for the tribe."

UW's revitalization project began in 2006, when Crowell and her classmates began brainstorming ideas to aid C'Hair in his teaching.

In the class, C'Hair relied mostly upon decades-old VHS tapes of elders speaking the Northern Arapaho language. While the tapes were highly educational, Crowell says, she and her classmates believed the tapes would be more useful if they were edited into teaching lessons and complemented with a workbook.

"We got to talking amongst ourselves one night at dinner and we were all like, ‘Wouldn't that be great if we had this?' and ‘Wouldn't it be great if we had that?'" says Crowell, who now works as an office associate in the UW Dean of Students Office.

She adds, "I love the language. It's such a deeply beautiful and spiritual language and it needs to be saved."

Since she had grant-writing experience, Crowell was elected to write a proposal for funding to the UW President's Advisory Council on Minorities' and Women's Affairs. She also submitted a funding request to The Heart of the Healer, a New York-based non-profit foundation that works to preserve indigenous cultures and restore the Earth.

In her proposals, Crowell says she used ideas from everybody in the class to "create a vision for the future of the teaching of the Northern Arapaho language."

"We don't often see students take the initiative to write a grant to help with a class, but that's what these students did," UW AIS Director Judy Antell says. "They cared so much about their teacher, Mr. C'Hair, and they could see that he didn't have all the teaching materials that they knew he needed in the class. I think it's remarkable what they did to try to help him and to help revitalize the teaching of the language."

By the time the students' grants were approved, however, Antell says the classmates had gone their separate ways, leaving the project without guidance. That's when Crowell asked for the help of the AIS program.

In the fall of 2007, Antell and three of her students -- Norlock, Brandi Hilton-Hagemann and Karl Snyder -- resumed the project. They worked with Andy Bryson, coordinator of instructional media services at the Ellbogen Teaching and Learning Center, to develop teaching lessons out of the old tapes and enlisted the help of students at the Arapaho Charter High School to create line drawings for the workbook.

After Bryson digitized the tapes, originally made sometime in the 1970s, Norlock and her two classmates broke the video into about 30 teaching lessons, provided subtitles and worked to identify the elders shown in the video.

The DVD phase of the project, Bryson guesses, consumed about 100 hours over a six-week period.

"I was always impressed by how passionate the students were about doing this project," Bryson says.

The students also made two trips to the charter school in Arapahoe, delivering art supplies the first time and enough pizza to feed the entire student body and teaching staff the second time.

While the project was "labor intensive," Norlock says it was an honor to participate and to help revive the language.

"Their language is just beautiful," she says. "It's almost like a song when you hear it, even if you can't understand it. And it's even more beautiful once you learn it, because behind each word is a story."

The DVD and workbook will be used for instruction in the UW Northern Arapaho language class and available for download on various Web sites, including the Northern Arapaho Tribal site www.northernarapaho.com and the Wind River Tribal College site www.wrtribalcollege.com.

Also, the Northern Arapaho Tribe purchased 1,000 DVD sets and handed them out to patrons this month at the grand opening of the Wind River Casino near Riverton.

"I kind of sit back now and look at this and go, ‘Wow!" Crowell says with a smile. "I really think I played a very, very small role, but I caught their dream and I'm just thrilled that we've been able to help.

"When we started, I heard people talking about the ‘preservation' of the language. But when I think of preservation, I think of a jar of pickles on a shelf. This isn't a preservation. This is a revitalization!"

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