When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 there were approximately 250 indigenous languages spoken in the current United States area alone. However, after hundreds of years of conflict, genocide, and the systematic suppression of culture and languages, that number has declined to 148—with many of them only spoken by elders.
During the late 19th and 20th centuries, North American Native children in both Canada and the U.S. were forcibly taken from families and sent to boarding schools. At the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania they were told they “could never become truly American… until the Indian within you is dead.”
Amongst the obvious traits of “being Indian” were physical appearances, and of course, their spoken indigenous languages. After arriving at such schools, weeping children had their long hair shorn off and were dressed in uniforms. They were beaten for speaking the languages first heard across these lands. Older and more experienced students were encouraged to ostracize and bully younger students who dared utter the words of their ancestors.
But within the last generation, there has been a concerted effort to preserve remaining indigenous languages. At the forefront of these efforts are people like Maatoomsstatoos (“First Winters Sun”), also known as Robert Hall.
While growing up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana in the early 1990s, he recalled how common it was to hear his language. “You’d go into the store and hear two old men talking and laughing and you knew they were speaking Blackfeet, and that was your Indian language, but as a young kid you never realized the importance of it, or that you even had the opportunity to learn it.”
As the years went on, the sounds of people speaking Blackfeet became less frequent. “You don’t walk into the store anymore and hear the language,” he said.
However, he rejects the notion that the remaining Native languages will become obsolete and extinct. “I really hate it when people talk about, ‘Oh, it’s a dying language,’ because it’s the people who speak it that are dying, not the language itself.”
And since the language is still alive as an entity, it can grow again—as it did in Hall’s mind. Still, ironically, it wasn’t until he lived off the reservation and studied at the University of Montana that he realized how much of an Indian he was not. Professor Stephen Greymorning, Arapaho, instilled in him the idea that knowing one’s Native language was a distinct “burden of proof” they belonged to the tribe they claimed.
Hall said if somebody knows their Native tongue, no one could discredit their indigenousness by saying they weren’t living on a reservation; didn’t know every tradition; judge them for having light skin; or claim they didn’t have enough of the controversial blood quantum requirements to be a tribal member. “When you speak the language, all of that transcends,” Hall said. “My identity hasn’t changed, but my ammunition for sovereignty has grown, and I really do think that language is our most powerful tool for laying claim to this land as Blackfeet.”
Prompted by Greymorning, a few years ago Hall decided to take on learning the Algonquian-based Pikuni (Blackfeet) language seriously. With mentors like William Big Bull and others who spoke the language that he’d end up conversing regularly with, Hall eventually became proficient enough in Blackfeet to teach it.
While many public indigenous activists espouse the importance of revitalizing and preserving languages lest they disappear, Hall says, “If they themselves don’t know their own Native tongue and aren’t trying to set examples by learning it, them telling others to learn it rings as hollow as a beauty pageant contestant wishing for world peace.”
Although Hall still considers himself an ever-evolving student of the language, he’s adamant on teaching the Pikuni language to as many people as possible. Using mostly personal funds, he volunteers to teach various classes throughout the reservation on a weekly basis to adults and children. He also hosts a local radio broadcast that highlights Pikuni learning.
He said of his teaching methods, “I’m trying to train students and myself to be storytellers in my language. I’m not teaching colors, animals… I’m teaching phrases and concepts, and I think it’s important to point that out.”
Hall paraphrased American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Upright Thinkers, who said that if mathematics is the language of physics, then without mathematics we cannot speak physics. “So, without my language, I can’t think as my ancestors did,” he said. “The beauty, the concepts, the mathematics, symbolism, and thinking that come from within indigenous languages is extraordinary.”
He explained that in English the concept of “kinship” does not mean we’re related to animals, stones, or other objects they deem inanimate, but only other humans. In the Algonquian-based languages, however, we’re related to universal things like animals, water, and stones. “And that idea becomes easier to grasp, because it’s normal within our languages,” he said. “So that affects the consciousness, and you come to treat even inanimate objects as if they’re alive, and our community is affected by this way of thinking.”
Hall never emphasizes simple word translation and memorization when teaching. Rather, he talks about a “facilitative environment.” When a student learns the word for angry, they don’t get the true sense of its meaning just by hearing it. If they experience seeing a very angry person, however, “You didn’t need any translation for it because you know, ‘Yeah, that’s angry!’ You need a facilitative environment where the language is meaningful, so you’re not just memorizing simple words and translations. You need to experience language in real-time.”
To have younger students learn real-time language, he had them create a puppet show and narrate a story. “The idea was there was a scruffy dog the kids named Oski—in English his name is Hounge,” he laughed. “Anyway, the concept is this dog only speaks Blackfoot and can’t speak English, so in order to communicate he needs to teach everybody his language.”
Beyond teaching classes, Hall is excited about a book he plans to release in 2017 with William Big Bull and Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. The book is influenced by the Center for Accelerated Language Acquisition techniques, as well as concepts Hall learned from video games.
He explained when learning how to play a complex video game, you don’t jump into it and have the skills to defeat the harder levels. You have to learn from the earlier levels, build skills upon those foundations, and then gradually you’ll have the knowhow to defeat the more difficult boss levels to defeat the game.
In the language sense, the end game for students is they’d eventually learn to tell an entire story in Pikuni. Although Hall noted Native American translation dictionaries among varying tribes have been available for years, not putting the content into meaningful use will only cause the language to further collect dust, so to speak.
“You can’t just put words of a language on a piece of paper and tell people, ‘Oh, it’s preserved,’” he said. “You have to use the words in everyday life, because you are the readers in the book that is life.”
This story was originally published December 27, 2016.