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Tribal Talk

Immersion schools try to revive and preserve Native American languages

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Jesse DesRosier begins each school day like lots of kids. The eighth grader hangs up his coat, pulls off his muddy boots and lopes into his classroom, raising a hand in greeting. Then he opens his mouth, and out comes a small miracle.

"Oki, aahsaapinakos!"

Hello, good morning! Bantering easily in the drawn-out vowels and clipped endings of a nearly extinct language, Jesse and his 35 classmates are the first fluent Blackfoot speakers in more than two generations. Here at the Nizipuhwahsin, or RealSpeakSchool, on the Blackfeet Reservation in far northwestern Montana, the kids spend all day speaking their ancestral tongue. From kindergarten through eighth grade, they study math, reading, history and other subjects in Blackfoot.

"Some people think our language is dead, but it's not," says DesRosier, a lanky teenager with a ready grin and dark, narrow braids that reach the middle of his back. "We still have our language and we're bringing it back."

What's at stake is more than words. Filled with nuance and references to Blackfeet history and traditions, the language embodies a culture. "The language allows kids to unravel the mysteries of their heritage," says Darrell Kipp, director of the school and one of its founders.

The Blackfoot language, also known as Piegan, has been in danger of disappearing for nearly a century. From the late 1800s through the 1960s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced tens of thousands of Native Americans into English-only government boarding schools. Taken hundreds of miles from the reservations, the children were often beaten for speaking native languages and sent home ashamed of them. As adults, they cautioned their own children to speak English only.

"We were told, 'You'd be better off learning only English, so what happened to us won't happen to you,'" says 68-year-old Cynthia Kipp, whose grandchildren attend Real Speak.

Over the decades, many tribal languages fell silent. Of the 300 languages spoken in North America at the time of European settlement, 150 have disappeared completely, and only a handful of the survivors are acquiring new speakers. By 1980, the remaining Blackfoot speakers were more than 50 years old, and Blackfoot was headed down the well-worn road to oblivion.

But in 1982, Darrell Kipp, now 59, a Harvard graduate and technical writer (and distant cousin of Cynthia Kipp), moved back to the reservation's windblown plains after a 20-year absence. He met up with Dorothy Still Smoking, who had also returned, in 1979, after earning a master's from the University of South Dakota, to become a dean at the reservation's community college. Both wanted to learn the language they'd occasionally heard but rarely spoke as children. "There was always a missing piece in my life," says Still Smoking, 54, "and that was the cultural component. The language contains everything—our values and wisdom, our outlook on the world."

In 1987, Kipp, Still Smoking, and a fluent Blackfoot speaker named Edward Little Plume, 73, founded the nonprofit Piegan Institute, dedicated to restoring Blackfoot and other tribal languages. Because many people on the reservation still associated their language with humiliating experiences at boarding school, the institute was controversial. "We met people who could not only not speak the language but also had a negative view of it," says Kipp.

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