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Tribal Talk

Immersion schools try to revive and preserve Native American languages

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To calm the waters, Kipp, Still Smoking and Little Plume made a video about tribal elders' experiences with the language and distributed 2,000 copies among the reservation's 7,000 residents. The video did the trick. "People realized we didn't give up the language by choice," says Kipp. "Our parents and grandparents didn't pass it on to us because they didn't want us to be abused."

Now Kipp and his colleagues had to figure out the best way to teach fluency. Though some local high schools had offered tribal language classes for years, these brief encounters taught familiarity, not fluency. "I'd teach the numbers up to five, and by the next week they'd have forgotten them," says Arthur Westwolf, a Real Speak teacher who worked in the reservation's public schools for 18 years.

In the early 1980s, the Maori of New Zealand and native Hawaiian Islanders had pioneered a different strategy by creating immersion centers called language nests, in which students hear and speak their ancestral language all day.

Intrigued by this approach, Kipp and the others raised private foundation grants sufficient to start classes at day care centers in 1995. Four years later, they finished construction of Real Speak, a one-story, three-classroom school in Browning, Montana.

Today, demand for the few openings at the school, where tuition is $100 a month, has parents signing up their toddlers, and the school's large, airy classrooms explode with activity. While younger students review their numbers or sing a Blackfoot version of "Frère Jacques," older students present illustrated short stories they've written in Blackfoot, work on math problems or visit the local senior center.

Though students may have heard no more than a few words of Blackfoot before entering, they are soon chatting and joking in the language. They also use it outside the classroom: one second grader, Leo John Bird III, plans to say a prayer in Blackfoot at a rodeo in memory of his grandfather, while other students rehearse a play about the Lewis and Clark expedition that they plan to perform at the University of Montana.

The school has received visitors from other tribes, including the Tlingit of Alaska and the Pechanga of Southern California. The Washoe recently opened an immersion school in Nevada, and the Ojibwa have established several such programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In Montana, two other tribes have started their own immersion programs. Supporters say the impact runs deep. "This is a way to heal the identity confusion that so many of our students go through," says Joyce Silverthorne, a tribal education director and member of the Montana Board of Public Education. Through immersion, she says, students "become well grounded in who they are." In Indian Country, where the frequency of suicide among adolescents is more than double the national rate, such confidence can be, literally, a lifesaver.

"It makes kids proud to be Blackfeet," says Jesse DesRosier, who recently graduated from Real Speak but returns for language classes. "When I have kids, I want to try and put them in this school." And that's not all. "We beat the public school in flag football. We did all our plays in Indian, and the other team didn't know what we were saying. That's how we won."

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