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Native Americans Strive to Retain Vanishing Heritage - 2004-07-12


For the indigenous peoples of America, the Lewis and Clark expedition brought publicity that led to a massive influx of people into their native lands. The Blackfeet Indian nation of Montana is one of those native American tribes trying to teach its children about their language and culture, before the old ways completely disappear.

Ernie Heavyrunner teaches three to five-year-olds some words in the Blackfeet language. He shows them the colors of traffic signals and what they mean. He says since so many Blackfeet no longer speak the language, efforts are being made to reach the children, even at a young age. "It's important for their identity," says the teacher. "It's important for them to know who they are, where they came from, and their language helps them to know this."

The children sing in the Blackfeet language at a private elementary school on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana. The school, which is part of a non-profit organization known as the Piegan Institute, hopes to revitalize the language.

The small school opened almost 10 years ago, and teaches about 30 students each year. They not only learn Blackfeet, but also take part in a full elementary school curriculum. Darrell Kipp, founder of the Institute, says he thinks the students do well in both Blackfeet and English.

"The fact is that our students come here and speak our language exclusively each day - English isn't allowed in the classrooms during the day. So all instruction is in our language," says Mr. Kipp. "Yet, our students are more articulate and better English speakers than their public school peers."

The Blackfeet is the largest tribe in Montana and probably got its name from the blackened moccasins the people used to wear. The reservation borders Glacier National Park. The Blackfeet owned the land that became the park until 1895, when they sold it to the U.S. government.

The Blackfeet children at the Piegan Institute are being taught a language that most of their parents and grandparents did not have the opportunity to learn. In the past, to discourage Indians from speaking their native tongues, the U.S. government sent Native American children to boarding and missionary schools far from their family and friends.

Among them was Piegan Institute volunteer Cynthia Kipp [not related to Darrell Kipp], who went to a school outside Montana. "I always wanted to learn and I yearned to speak Blackfeet," says Ms. Kipp. "I always felt there was something missing in my life and that it wasn't complete."

Some of her other family members are also involved with the school. Her daughter, Joycelyn Des Rosier, a teacher, says she first had to learn the Blackfeet language before she could help the students. She says the school encourages the children to think creatively.

For example, at a staff meeting, she shows a picture a young student drew about the story of a wolf. "This wolf is looking for something that is already dead. He's going to take it home to cook," she explained. "Another kid told the student, 'But wolves don't know how to cook.' I told her, 'It's OK, your wolf can cook.'"

Joycelyn says Blackfeet is also spoken at her home, including by her son Michael, who attends the Piegan Institute school. "We practice quite a bit. And a lot of his friends who come from this school, we make them also speak [Blackfeet]," she says. "We pray everyday in our language. And we give all the commands and everything, so that I can remember, and I wake them all up in Blackfoot."

Michael, whose Native American name is Eagle Bear, says he enjoys learning about his cultural heritage. "I like learning Blackfeet. And I like art, and drawing, and reading and writing, but I don't like math," he laughs.

Darrell Kipp says the students learn about their ancestors. They are also taught about the Lewis and Clark expedition, including from the Native American point of view.

He says many Indians are commemorating rather than celebrating the 200th anniversary of the journey. One reason, he says, is because Native Americans went through tremendous hardship after publicity from the expedition brought an influx of people out West.

"Tribes lost enormous land, lost enormous amounts of their homeland," he explains. "They suffered a lot of the influx of diseases that decimated their populations. They were subject to a dominant government. They were ultimately placed on reservations."

Mr. Kipp says despite the hardships of the past, and problems that continue today, the Piegan Institute is looking toward the future. He says while many indigenous languages around the world are disappearing, he hopes the Blackfeet language will continue and endure.

"Well, it is our dream, and our hope, and our vision many years from now, when we've all left this wonderful place, that those children that are in our schools will be parents and grandparents," he says "and that our language will continue to be used by them and that we'll be probably one of the few tribal languages on this earth that continue to exist."

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