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Revitalizing Indigenous Languages

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Chapter 2 of Revitalizing Indigenous Languages, edited by Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie (pp.6-16). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Copyright 1999 by Northern Arizona University. Return to Table of Contents

Running the Gauntlet of an Indigenous Language Program

Stephen Greymorning

Neneeninoo Neniice'ooke 'oh Hinono'einiihi' nenee'eesi'inoo Ceebih'ohut Heeyei Ceciniihi' Neniice'ooke' noh hii3owoo3oowunoo 3oowoo3eeniteeno' henetioxkooni hiteenetiitoonino' heetnoo'oo3oo' hinenteeniit. Henee3neeneexu3ecoonoo henetiino'oox heteenetiitoonin heetneihoowuni kohkou'i3ecoon hinono'einiihi'. Henetiino'oox heteenetiitoonin heetheenetiino' nenei3owoo'oono' noh heetneenetino' hookoh hetiine'tiitoonin nene' heteenetiitoonin, noh nene' heteenetiitoonin tenei'oo'neino'.

I am Stephen Greymorning but in the Arapaho way I am called Hawk-flies-by-in-the-Winter-Greymorning, and I believe if Indians lose their language it will be bad for all people. I am really worried if we lose our language we won't be able to think in the Arapaho way. If we lose our language we will lose our ceremonies and ourselves because our life is our language, and it is our language that makes us strong.

For centuries our languages have been a reflection of those cultural distinctions that have made us who we are as a people, and in a sense have been an element of the many things that have made us strong. Though we have survived centuries of contact and conflict, today we are faced with a crisis that is perhaps more significant than any we have ever faced in our histories. It is a crisis of the loss of our languages, and this crisis has reached a point that if we are not able to effectively pass our languages on to our youth, within the next 15 years we could witness the loss of as much as 85% of the Indian languages that are still presently spoken. We are in effect running a gauntlet.

Many people are familiar with the gauntlet owing to how it has been portrayed in movies. It is the scene where the hero is caught by the Indians, and forced to run the gauntlet. The entire village had formed two lines through which the hero had to run as he dodged tomahawks and clubs swung at him. Though he often fell, his courage carried him through. The language work that we do often faces similar trials and obstacles that threaten to beat our efforts down. It can be brutal, and like running a gauntlet our efforts demand fortitude and perseverance if we are to achieve our end objectives. Since the situation and obstacles faced on the Wind River Reservation may be very similar to those faced by many tribes, I will speak primarily from my experiences there. Later on, however, I will suggest things that may be useful toward getting through the gauntlets we face in our language efforts.

It is ironic that we often create our own gauntlets, like the books and curriculum materials that have been created by Arapaho language instructors at language teacher training workshops. Despite the fact that the materials produced represent excellent tools for language learning, they unfortunately have also presented a problem. The problem has been that once completed they have not been put to use. Instead they have sat on shelves collecting dust. Why this has happened is not always clear. Even though language instructors received training in how they could be used, and the materials were not too advanced for student use, the very instructors who created the material resisted using them. It is worth noting that as a result of having seen similar occurrences at other Indian communities, I am hopeful that my writing of the language restoration efforts at Wind River may benefit others involved in the work of language revitalization.

During the 1960s many community Elders on the Wind River Reservation had become very concerned that Arapaho youth were not able to speak the language. Their concern gave rise to continued pressure to formally implement Arapaho language instruction. Thanks to their efforts Arapaho language instruction was finally introduced within the public school system located on the reservation during the latter part of the 1970s. By 1984 Arapaho was being taught from kindergarten to grade 12. Language instruction was conducted for 15 minutes a day each day of the school week. While it is not clear why only 15 minutes a day was devoted to language instruction, it is clear that this 15 minute format represents a standard time period allotted to the instruction of our languages on most reservations throughout the United States and Canada. What has been overlooked by many, however, is what this time format represents.

I do not believe Wyoming Indian School administrators had formally assessed the impact that 15 minutes of language instruction could have on teaching Arapaho. If they did they never openly discussed it until I began questioning its effectiveness in 1993. One of the more observable impacts was the way in which our language teachers were categorized by the standard classroom teachers. I do not believe these standard classroom teachers actually thought about how little time 15 minutes represented when it came to teaching Arapaho. When I presented the idea of increasing the time devoted to language instruction by taking away the time used to teach other classroom subjects I was looked at as if I had gone crazy. When I continued to press the issue I was finally told, as if I were a child attending the elementary school, that if that were to happen the standard classroom teachers would not be able to effectively teach their subject areas to their students. With administrators now backed into a corner I asked; "Then why are you requiring our language instructors to teach under a format that you have expressed is ineffective?" I further explained that 15 minutes a day, multiplied by 180 days in the school year, equals 45 hours of language instruction per year. I made it clear that they have expected our language instructors to teach, and students to learn, a language in 45 hours; the amount of time many administrators usually devoted to their jobs in one week. I continued pressing the issue and asked what they thought could be accomplished if when hired they were informed that over the course of the school year only 45 hours of instruction, per subject, could be spent teaching students. For some 15 years our language instructors have had to contend with this gauntlet, and under this format language instructors readily observe that children were not learning much of the language. Faced with criticism from standard classroom teachers, who were quick to point out how ineffective Arapaho language instruction was, Arapaho language instructors, faced with having to justify their own existence in the classroom, focused their efforts on teaching vocabulary words that mostly consisted of animals, colors, counting, and several elementary commands and phrases.

During the time when language instruction was first introduced in the schools, efforts were made to record Elders telling stories in Arapaho. By the time the tape recorder gave way to video recordings, volumes of language resource materials had already been developed. In 1981, I assisted Dr. Salzmann in compiling an Analytical Bibliography of Sources Concerning the Arapaho Indians and a Dictionary of Contemporary Arapaho Usage. Dr. Salzmann was called upon again in 1986 when he assisted in developing six hours of videotaped language lessons, 36 individual lessons in all, none of which were ever put to use. Also during that year, summer language camps were developed and run, and though these camps were well attended, they had little effect in helping to produce new language speakers. Even though Arapaho language efforts had intensified, these efforts had little impact because the material developed was never effectively used. Instead, it all just sat on shelves, in the Curriculum Resource Center, adding to the ranks of our gauntlet. Another problem with our language efforts resulted by taping Arapaho speakers but never translating what was said into English. The result of this oversight is that these video and audio cassette tapes can only be useful as long as fluent speakers are around who can understand what was said. At the point no more speakers exist, then no one will be able to use these resources because they will not be able to understand their content. Efforts were again intensified through summer language camps and High Intensity Language Training (H.I.L.T) workshops, which all teaching personnel were required to take part in. Even in the face of these efforts, little change occurred.

At the time many fluent speakers were facing the reality of the language slowly dying out, I was directing the language/culture program within the Wyoming Indian Public School District #14. Although my basic strategy was to try and bring about changes that would strengthen how language was being taught within the school system, the battle cry from local administrators was for me to develop curriculum, curriculum, and more curriculum, believing this to be the definitive answer to the problem. While directing the program I began to realize that those who would labor to live by the rule of curriculum could also perish by the same rule. In spite of bringing a new face into the system, and the volumes of material that resulted from that curriculum mandate, the rule of curriculum development had remained unchanged. We were in fact still running a gauntlet, and no matter how hard we tried our language continued to get beaten down.

When facing a gauntlet there can be but one objective: get through it. This means one has to always be one step ahead of any obstacle that might cause the language to falter or fail. This also means that individual language instructors should possess clear vision and flexibility while working with language students. They should be cognizant of situations that could impede student language development and innovatively apply the necessary actions to always keep both students and their language program moving ahead. Perhaps equally as important, language instructors should be steadfast in their commitment toward the language program and the all-important goal of producing genuinely fluent speakers. In the case of language learning, this means to always move toward increasing the language speaking ability of each group that follows until the goal of language fluency has been achieved and maintained throughout successive generations. I believe that when I started to direct the language project on the Wind River Reservation I had been imbibed with how to move toward this goal, so I would like to share what helped me to put a language revitalization methodology in place.

When thinking about what brought me back to the language I always remember a talk I had with an Elder. He shared with me what it was like being Arapaho when he was young, and his telling me of that time took on a very personal meaning for me. One of the things he told me about was how people came together to listen to traditional stories. When people wanted to hear stories an individual or family would call on an Elder. In doing so they would first feed the Elder. When the time came to hear the stories, families would come together at night to listen to the stories. As the stories unfolded the Elder would at times call out a child's name. If the child was awake the child would respond. If the child was dozing, I was told how another child would nudge or poke their friend to wake him up enough to respond so the story could continue. If it got to the point where the Elder called out a child's name and the child did not respond, the Elder would state; "Well everyone must be tired so I will go now." Well it did not matter how often the stories were told everyone always wanted to hear them so the children would always try to keep each other awake so they could respond when the Elder called their name.

When I first heard this story I thought back to a student demonstration that occurred when I was in college. We had gathered at a rally where a number of students were voicing their concern. At some point someone turned and asked me what I was doing for Indian people; it was as if an Elder had called my name. I remember getting up and going to the library. I just started looking through books, not really knowing what I was looking for. One of the books that came to me presented information about the status of Indian languages. At that point in time Arapaho, as well as many other Indian languages, was reported as being healthy with significant speaking populations. Eight years later, by the time I started graduate school, many of those same Indian languages were reported to be in serious decline. Throughout those graduate school years something drove me to enroll in every linguistic course offered and to think about strategies for language preservation.

When I started my position in the Wyoming Indian School system in January of 1993, Arapaho language classes at the elementary school level were still averaging only 15 minutes per class. At the Junior High and High School levels, Arapaho was offered as 50 minute classes three times a week. Once students reached High School, however, Arapaho was optional, and the enrollment in these classes usually averaged about six students. It was obvious that after 12 years of having Arapaho classes being taught, students at best could only speak a few phrases. After years of noting this, teachers of the standard subjects saw little value in teaching Arapaho. Sadly no one seemed to concern themselves with trying to understand why the language was failing in the classroom. As a result, many had resigned themselves to believe that the language belonged in the home and not in the classroom. The problem with this outlook was that in many homes the language had been lost three generations back, and in a vast majority of homes no one could speak the language. Even in homes where speakers lived, it was discovered that fluent speakers spent on an average as much as 96% of each day both speaking and thinking in English. Clearly, if the language was meant to be in the home then a way had to be found to bring it back there.

One of the resources developed to try and accomplish this was the translation and distribution of the video Bambi in the Arapaho language. Bambi seemed like a good project for a number of reasons. One reason was that in many of our traditional stories animals and people spoke alike, so a movie like Bambi seemed to conform to some of our legends. A second reason was that as the story unfolded, its main character, Bambi, used simple childlike language as he learned to speak. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was a story that most children on the reservation were already both familiar with and enjoyed to watch. The idea was that by developing a library of children videos, like the Bambi video, both children and adults could begin to pick up a lot of Arapaho. This became a part of what I called a multifaceted approach. This means that efforts should be taken to have the language seen and heard in as many places as possible, like on street signs, the radio, computers, videos, and books. Some of those early efforts produced audio cassettes of children's songs and stories that children could sing to or read along with, also animated computerized children stories, and a prototype for a talking dictionary with word phrases that linked to animated recreations of what was being said.

Another aspect in trying to bring about a renewed vigor to the language came to me from a passage in the Bible that reads: "Child is the father to man." This passage remained fixed in my mind, and the more I reflected on it the more I thought about its significance with regard to getting language reestablished in the home. My basic premise was that through children learning language their parents would begin to want to learn as well. I also suspected that parents could actually begin to learn some Arapaho from their children. Having these thoughts tumbling around in my head, I began to seek ways to get the language more visible within the community and home.

It is interesting how some of our strongest efforts can at times bring about opposition from our own people. As our language efforts intensified so did the criticism. I frequently heard comments about the sacredness of the language and that it should not be in a cartoon, in books, or on a computer. Comments like these made me wonder what benefit could come by keeping language locked away as though it was in a closet. I also wondered what was it that made a language sacred. A clue to these thoughts came from what many consider to be a Sacred book of writingsthe Bible. It was the parable of the talents. In this story a wealthy man went away and gave three of his servants talents (money). To one he gave five talents, to a second he gave two talents, and to the third he gave one talent. The man who received five went out and traded with them and made five more. Likewise, the man who received two went out and made two more the same way. But the man who received one hid it away in the ground (Matthew 25:14). When the landlord returned he called the men to him and was pleased by the actions of the first two. But when the third man came forward and stated because he had heard that his landlord was a hard man he hid the talent in the ground. Having heard this the landlord became angry and had the man cast out saying "from the man who has not even what he has will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29). This parable has served to illustrate to me what is happening with our languages. We have been given something sacred, and we recognize its sacredness, but instead of blessing our children with this Sacred gift, a vast majority of speakers seemed to have buried their language out of reach from our children and out of reach from our future.

After assessing the school's Arapaho language classes it was very clear that they were one dimensional, focusing almost exclusively on numbers, colors, and a variety of vocabulary words including food items and animals. And, although students from grade two to six could recite a translation of the Pledge of Allegiance, these students did not have any comprehension of what they were actually saying. Students at the Junior High presented a similar problem. For them a major bulk of their learning was focused on reading skills. It was unfortunate however that they had little to no understanding of what they were reading. At the High School level Arapaho language classes presented a completely different scenario. Most of these classes were very small because Arapaho was optional. These small classes should have presented an excellent opportunity for individual learning to occur. Those times when I went to observe students, however, the classes were being use as a time to watch popular videos, such as Terminator, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon. Rather than fight a practice that had been established over the years, I chose to focus on the younger age groups, and took a position that if their language skills could be strengthened then through the younger classes change could come about from the bottom up. The difficulty, however, was to get the elementary school principal to recognize that it was necessary to make changes to actually bring about change. This was when I first brought to his attention that 15 minutes of language instruction a day could only result in an environment that did not breed learning. That part, and how 15 minutes of daily class instruction when multiplied by 180 school days equals 45 hours of language instruction per school year, was readily understood. As this seems to represent the amount of time typically allocated to Indian languages throughout "Indian Country," it basically means our languages have only been given the amount of time devoted to one work week for each academic year of study. I challenged him to think what the result would be if that represented the total amount of time teachers were allocated to teach each individual subject of the school's standard curriculum. From this I was able to implement an 18 week pilot study in which a kindergarten class received an hour of language instruction each school day. Implementing this project was not an easy task as the class had to overcome some serious opposition from the kindergarten teachers.

The new pilot language class was composed of 15 children. The children were split into two groups of five, and each group rotated through three different language stations. They spent 15 minutes at each station, and at each station they were exposed to a different language instructor with a different language objective. Each station was set up to focus on a specific area of language proficiency, such as learning vocabulary, how to ask questions of each other, and how to respond to questions when asked by others in the class. Another area of language use focused on food items and discussions revolving around meals. For the last 15 minutes of the hour-long class all the children were combined into one group and another instructor came in to work with them. In this last 15 minutes there was a stronger emphasis placed on whole language learning. The children had to respond to full sentences with full sentences. During this time they were challenged to figure out things and to accomplish specific tasks. A conscious decision was made to not deviate too much from what was standardly done. Hence, a lot of vocabulary words were learned. While this had been the case for the pilot class, it is important to note that the children also had command of a large list of Arapaho phrases.

After twelve weeks the children in this class had mastered a vocabulary of 163 words and phrases (see Figure 1). At the end of the 18 weeks these children displayed a vocabulary that consisted of more than 200 words and phrases. This stood in remarkable contrast to other students in classes from first to third grade that at best had mastered around 30 to 40 Arapaho words and phrases. Toward the end of the 18 weeks I had brought in a video camera and told the children that I wanted to make a video of what they could say in Arapaho. I told them that the video was going to be sent to a class of Indian children in Canada, who just like themselves were studying their language, and that the video would help them see how much could be learned. I had with me a sheet with 209 English words and phrases that the children had to translate into Arapaho. I started the camera and read the list off. The children were incredibly enthusiastic, and in a matter of 25 minutes had gone through the entire list not missing a single item. I was later devastated when I realized that the film had not properly loaded in the camera (see Greymorning, 1997 for more information on this class). What was achieved with this class would later provide a strong impetus for implementing a kindergarten half-day immersion class for the 1993/94 school year.

Figure 1. List of Arapaho words and phrases spoken by kindergarten children after 12 weeks of Arapaho language instruction
Phrases (32)Body Parts (15) Clothing (8)Animals (36)
write your namebodyhat cat
sit downhairshirt (men's) dog
stand upheadshirt (women's) horse
come herefacesocks bear
come ineyesshoes snake
listen earspants beaver
sit stillnosegloves mouse
be stillmouthbelt wolf
move over(standing)teeth coyote
move over (sitting)neckColors (9)duck
can I touch himelbowred rabbit
can I ride himhandpink antelope
are you hungrykneewhite sheep
I am thirstylegbrown owl
pick it upfingerspurple bird
throw it awayblack turkey
what are you doing grey cow
I am jumpingFoods (13) blue/green porcupine
jump appleorange/yellow bug
throw it (an.)bread sage chicken
throw it (inan.)butter pig
go and get itcorn chipmunk
I am hungrybacon elk
can I feed himeggs salamander
what is your namemeat hawk
my name iswater raccoon
give it to mepotatoes turtle
quit itmilk deer
put it downorange fish
line upsalt frog
talk loudsugar crow
lets go monkey
Numbers (1-30) chicken
Misc. word items (20) butterfly
ballplate grandma
box fork grandpa
chairspoon mother
cup tree father
kniferock what
paperriver hello
Total Count 163

With the success of the kindergarten class I was actually quite surprised that there was considerable resistance toward the language initiatives I was trying to implement. In fact that resistance seemed to increase with the success of the kindergarten class, as a faction of Arapaho speakers actually argued that Arapaho children would be better off learning Spanish. Ironically, High School students had learned to speak Spanish better than they had learned to speak Arapaho. As this presented a serious obstacle, I felt it was important for people to see a successful language program at work in order to show that children can really become fluent speakers of their language.

In May 1993 a conference dealing with Native American Language Issues was held at Hilo, Hawaii. The conference highlighted the Punana Leo language immersion work being done throughout Hawaii, and it gave me the opportunity to see the full extent of what was possible by observing first hand three and four year old children speaking their Hawaiian language. It was like witnessing a miracle, and it was the inspiration of those children that I brought back with me to try to instill within our own language program.

While attending the conference in Hilo I took some 60 hours of video recordings. This was edited down into a 20 minute presentation that was also used as a working model to strive toward. As a result of being able to show the tapes of the Hawaiian immersion preschools, the elementary school principal allowed a half-day kindergarten Arapaho language immersion class to be implemented in September 1993. Owing to the nature of the children being in an immersion class, I was able to convince the elementary school instructors of music, art, and physical education to allow their classes to be instructed in Arapaho by the Arapaho language instructors when the immersion class was in those subjects. Much to the credit and commitment of the Wyoming Indian School District #14, the kindergarten immersion class has continued. Although we had our first immersion class in place, I knew this single class was not enough to make an impact on the language. I knew if we were going to run the gauntlet then what we needed was something more along the lines of the language renaissance that was happening in Hawaii and New Zealand, and that meant starting up more language immersion classes. The work before us was only now beginning to get started.

In January 1994 a two hour a day, four days a week, Arapaho language immersion preschool class was implemented. This class was expanded to three hours a day, five days a week, in September 1994, and then in September 1995 the first full-day language immersion class was begun. One year later a second language immersion preschool class was implemented, and at present the Arapaho language immersion preschool has become a part of Hinono'eitiit Hoowu'--the Arapaho Language Lodge, a nonprofit organization with the objective to work toward maintaining a language environment that will generate new Arapaho speakers. Although this may sound like a lot, when compared to what the Maori people of New Zealand and Hawaiians have accomplished with their language programs, it is clear that the work of the Arapaho Language Lodge is only just beginning.

At a time when some of the most basic issues of learning are pondered by educators, like confidence, self-image, and self-esteem, I have seen the impact that being able to speak one's Native language has had on Hawaiian and Maori youth. In June 1997, I observed Maori youth preparing for a Haka competition. What was most impressive about the Haka these Maori youth composed and prepared for competition was the history it related of how the Maori fought for their land and culture. In their presentation young Maori women stood behind the men intoning that if the men die in their fight then so too will the women.

I also had the opportunity to see Maori children in an elementary school perform a Haka. While their Haka was less political it still carried the strength and commitment that seems to be very much a part of Polynesian culture. It also seemed apparent, at least in my mind, that these children will be ready to replace the leadership when they come of age, as nothing seems to be lacking in their confidence, self-image, or self-esteem.

As the Arapaho Language Immersion Program completes its fifth year of operation, it continues to draw much inspiration and guidance from Hawaiian and Maori language immersion programs. While I was in New Zealand, the Maori spoke to me of their immersion philosophy of "language from the breast." Children who can barely walk are continually surrounded by Maori language, culture, caring, and love, as it traditionally was in our own languages and cultures and so should it continue to be. Hinono'eitiit Hoowu', the Arapaho Language Lodge, has drawn from this model to implement a Mother/Child language program. Through this program we are exposing mothers to the language of nurturing and caring for their children in Arapaho. Parents learn from an Elder woman who imparts to them the Arapaho language that she remembered being used when caring for Arapaho children, children who grew up speaking the language within Arapaho traditions. Benefits expected from this language program will come from children as young as 16 months old being exposed to the language, so that by the time they enter the immersion preschool class they will do so already speaking Arapaho. Another benefit anticipated is for adults to begin learning to speak Arapaho through the most natural bond; the bond that exists between parent and child.

As we look back, around, and ahead, we have seen frustration, success and struggle. And though language immersion is not easy work, if our languages are to survive then it is a necessary work. If I am to end with one closing image to illustrate the commitment needed to embrace this work then it would be the following. In June of 1994, I was traveling back from California where I had helped with the final edits of the Arapaho Bambi video. I had been pushing it to get back in time for the week-long H.I.L.T. workshop. When I got to where the workshop was being held and started to walk into the building I paused and looked out at an area where an Arapaho summer ceremonial is held about a quarter of a mile from the high school. As I stood up on that rise thinking how it would look in a few weeks covered with teepees, I was startled as in my mind I saw an image of a huge wall of water moving toward the village. I knew that wall of water symbolized the worst of development and technology: that which would destroy language, culture, and all that those before us had fought so hard to protect for future generations. It was frightening. I remember standing there looking at that wall of water and thinking; "I will hold you back." But as I said the words, and realized the power of that approaching force, I thought how foolish and small I was and I dropped to one knee and wept. As I knelt there in that position something came over me that I can only express as the Spirit of the Dog Soldiers. These were the warriors who would lash themselves to a wooden stake or arrow driven into the earth, and from that spot they would meet the enemy, fighting for the safety and well-being of their people. In essence they were fighting for their cultural way of being, and only death would move them from the ground they held. When I was down in that position I symbolically tied the leather thong around my leg and stood up and said "I will hold you back!"

If we are to truly be successful in our efforts to pass our languages on to successive generations, then through commitment like that of the Dog Soldiers, "from ancient Sacred ground we will guide our paths into the future" (Greymorning, in press).

Note: The word "Indian" (erroneously applied by Columbus who mistakenly believed he had reached an island off the coast of India) has been received with mixed emotions by the original inhabitants of North America. In Canada, an effort to outdistance the stigma has resulted in using Native, with a capital "N": This however has also been received with mixed feelings. Internationally, "indigenous" has been applied with growing acceptance. Instead of using an uncapitalized indigenous, however, I have chosen to use "Indigenous" (with a capital "I") much along the same lines as Canada distinguishes between "native" when referring to being of a place and "Native" when referring to the particular peoples indigenous to Canada before European contact. I have also used "aboriginal" with some frequency when referring to groups, populations, or cultures at an early period in history. Although my preference is toward the use of Indigenous, because of the widespread usage of "Indian," certain situations have at times forced me to acquiesce to its usage.


Greymorning, Stephen. (in press). The colonization of indigenous North America. In R. Craven (Ed.), Teaching aboriginal studies. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Greymorning, Stephen. (1997). Going beyond words: The Arapaho Immersion Program. In J. Reyhner (Ed.), Teaching indigenous languages. (pp.22-30). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University.

Mathew. (1996). The Jerusalem Bible, Alexander Jones, general editor. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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