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UW works with the Northern Arapaho Tribe to bring its language to a new generation of learners.
By Micaela Myers
Aldora White Eagle, chief executive officer of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and holder of a doctorate from the University of Wyoming’s College of Education, recalls being sent out of the house as a child when the elders spoke Arapaho. “It goes back to the boarding school era when they were beaten for speaking the language,” she says.
From the late 1800s into the mid-1900s, Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools and speak only English. Elementary education Professor Emeritus Tim Rush remembers his good friend, Burnett Whiteplume, a UW Ph.D. alumnus, sharing a story of when his father attended St. Stephens Indian School back when it was boarding school. “He said something in Arapaho to his friends, and a teacher heard him. They took him out of line for his dinner, put him in the coal shed and locked the door for the night.”
However, Rush says the Arapaho compassion and humor got kids through the boarding school’s oppression. “After their dinner, his buddies smuggled food out of the dining hall in napkins inside their shirts and dropped it to him through a gap above the padlocked door. Later, these grown-up boys got many good laughs recalling this.”
White Eagle and Rush share more stories—from teachers hitting their hands with rulers to authorities putting a rubber band between their teeth and snapping it back at them.
“There’s a lot of heartbreaking stories of speaking the language,” she says. “Those are the painful reminders—the pain that’s associated with speaking the language. It should have never been like that.”
Fast forward to today, and the Arapaho language is listed as severely endangered—only a few dozen elders are fluent speakers.
“Our language loss is in a crisis,” White Eagle says.
But there are efforts to save and revitalize the language, including partnerships between UW and the Northern Arapaho Tribe.
White Eagle, her niece, son and many others are learning the language. “Now you see the pride coming back—you see that excitement back,” she says.
The Arapaho language and culture are closely tied together. For example, when ceremonies are performed in English, a lot gets lost in translation, White Eagle says. “I was just talking to a fluent speaker about how once you learn our language, you step into a whole different world. It’s amazing.
“The other thing I wanted to emphasize is how holy and sacred and living our language is,” she says. “I hear our elders talk and pray that our language can come back. This is prayers being answered.”
The new Intra-Tribal Institute for Applied Literacy Research in Arapaho Language and Culture, Hinono’eitiit’, aims to preserve Arapaho language and culture through the education of children and the preparation of linguistically and culturally fluent teachers. The institute is partnering with the UW College of Education Literacy Research Center and Clinic to create a research arm that uses critical participatory action research as one approach to examine the long-term enactment of culture-based education in this context.
The institute is seeking an endowment to help support its goals, which include increasing the number of Northern Arapaho people who attain Wyoming state teacher certification, earn the UW certificate in teaching American Indian children and are tribally certified in Arapaho language and culture. A second goal is to increase the number of Wyoming state-certified teachers who earn the certificate and increase their proficiency in Arapaho. Both of these steps lead to the third goal of creating a dual-language/cultural immersion program at St. Stephens Indian School.
To support the institute’s goals, the College of Education is offering scholarships to Native American students via the Ray D. Kennedy College of Education Scholarship and is developing more distance-education options for teachers and future teachers on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Rush explains that, for the dual-immersion school, a senior mentor who is fluent in Arapaho language and culture would be paired with a certified classroom teacher who makes a commitment to learning the language.
“At the end of the first 12 years, we’d have 100-300 fluent speakers—a new generation,” he says.
College of Education Dean Ray Reutzel supports the idea of a dual-immersion school: “It will help the children learn their language. Also, it will help them understand that we respect and honor their culture and their language, and we want to help them preserve that. That will build greater trust between the indigenous nations and UW.”
The institute’s work to increase fluency has already begun with a master apprentice program. Through a grant, a fluent elder is paired with an apprentice. They meet for several hours three times a week and speak only in Arapaho.
“After a year, the apprentices will become fluent. So, by next year, we’ll have five more fluent speakers,” says White Eagle, who took over as the institute’s interim director after Whiteplume’s death in February 2019.
Dana Robertson, executive director of the Literacy Research Center and Clinic, says that the partnership with the institute aligns well with UW’s mission as a land-grant institution. “The Northern Arapaho people have invited us to help them, and we’re responding to that. At least to me, that embodies what the land-grant mission is. It’s not our agenda—it’s the people’s agenda and how can we support them with the resources we have.”
Arapaho on Campus
At UW, the faculty in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program are also working hard to revitalize the Arapaho language. UW is one of only a few universities to teach the language.
“In our language classes, our focus is revitalization, so we’re working with different materials than standardized classes,” says Robyn Lopez, who teaches the four levels of Arapaho at UW. “Some of the things we definitely push in my class are service projects—doing research or translations that will be useful in building either lesson plans or expanding vocabulary in under-documented areas.”
All the classes are taught immersion style, and the 4000-level class is an internship.
Lopez and her students work closely with the Arapaho elders. “All of the elders are very on board with pushing for revitalization, so there are a lot of programs going on—on the reservation and through partnerships like we have here,” she says. “If a student is focused on a gardening project, they’ll look through and find all the words on gardening that they can find, then they start to say to the elders, ‘Are there words like this?’ ”
The elders also recognize that to reach the next generation, they need to bring Arapaho into the digital age, which is where cultural and linguistic anthropology doctoral candidate Phineas Kelly comes in. He worked with the elders to create a mobile place-based augmented-reality Arapaho language app on the main UW campus where users go on a quest to collect medicinal plants to take to the grandmother.
“The first words are, ‘This is Arapaho land,’ ” Kelly says. “You walk over two-thirds of the campus. You visit different animal guides—badger, crow, coyote—and have short conversations with them. You get tokens for the plants and learn their Arapaho names.”
The app is currently used in Arapaho language classes and during the Native American Summer Institute. In the next couple of years, he plans to develop a second version for use on the Wind River reservation.
In the meantime, he’s working with Lopez, Associate Professor Caskey Russell and the team in the Shell 3D Visualization Center on a virtual-reality Arapaho language and culture revitalization application based on two sites of special significance to the Arapaho people. To conduct the work, they received a College of Arts and Sciences seed grant.
“The elders and other Native speakers hold this cultural treasure of the language,” Russell says. “You take this virtual reality and mobile app and combine it with the treasure that is the language and transmit it that way. This is a way to help share that treasure with a younger generation in a context that the younger generation recognizes as having a lot of cultural and social capital.”
When the project is complete, users will be able to use virtual-reality headsets to be immersed in the 3D filmed environments. The elders chose the locations—one a former wintering ground in Colorado and another on the reservation. In the immersive space, the voices of the elders will tell stories of the locations and identify landmarks and plants in English and Arapaho in both audio and text.
Kelly has larger goals in the future, including bringing STEM education computer coding programs to Arapaho youth and developing language and culture revitalization applications with other indigenous peoples to fight against the rapid disappearance of global cultural diversity.
Russell, a member of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska, says, “There’s a lot of potential here. I’d love to see this technology used in revitalizing Tlingit and other indigenous languages.”