By DAN FROSCH
Published: October 16, 2008
RIVERTON, Wyo. — At 69, her eyes soft and creased with age, Alvena Oldman remembers how the teachers at St. Stephens boarding school on the Wind River Reservation would strike students with rulers if they dared to talk in their native Arapaho language.
“We were afraid to speak it,” she said. “We knew we would be punished.”
More than a half-century later, only about 200 Arapaho speakers are still alive, and tribal leaders at Wind River, Wyoming’s only Indian reservation, fear their language will not survive. As part of an intensifying effort to save that language, this tribe of 8,791, known as the Northern Arapaho, recently opened a new school where students will be taught in Arapaho. Elders and educators say they hope it will create a new generation of native speakers.
“This is a race against the clock, and we’re in the 59th minute of the last hour,” said a National Indian Education Association board member, Ryan Wilson, whom the tribe hired as a consultant to help get the school off the ground. Like other tribes, the Northern Arapaho have suffered from the legacy of Indian boarding institutions, established by the federal government in the late 1800s to “Americanize” Native American children. It was at such schools that teachers instilled the “kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy, young boys had their traditional braids shorn, and students were forbidden to speak tribal languages.
The discipline of those days was drummed into an entire generation of Northern Arapaho, and most tribal members never passed down the language. Of all the remaining fluent speakers, none are younger than 55.
That is what tribal leaders hope to change. About 22 children from pre-kindergarten through first grade started classes at the school — a rectangular one-story structure with a fresh coat of white paint and the words Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’ (translation: Arapaho Language Lodge) written across its siding.
Here, set against an endless stretch of windswept plains and tufts of cottonwoods, instructors are using a state-approved curriculum to teach students exclusively in Arapaho. All costs related to the school, which has an operating budget of $340,000 a year, are paid for by the tribe and private donors. Administrators plan to add a grade each year until it comprises pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade classes.
“This environment is a complete reversal of what occurs too often in schools, where a child is ridiculed or reprimanded for speaking one’s heritage language,” said Inée Y. Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute, a group in Santa Fe, N.M., that works with tribes on native languages.
“I want my son to talk nothing but Arapaho to me and my grandparents,” said Kayla Howling Buffalo, who enrolled her 4-year-old son, RyLee, in the school.
Ms. Howling Buffalo, 25, said she, too, had been inspired to take Arapaho classes because her grandmother no longer has anyone to speak with and fears she is losing her first language.
Such sentiments are not uncommon on the reservation and have become more pronounced in the five years since Helen Cedar Tree, at 96 the oldest living Northern Arapaho, made an impassioned plea to the tribe’s council of elders.
“She said: ‘Look at all of you guys talking English, and you know your own language. It’s like the white man has conquered us,’ ” said Gerald Redman Sr., the chairman of the council of elders. “It was a wake-up call.”
A group of Arapaho families had sent their children to a pre-kindergarten language program for years, but it was not enough. Heeding Ms. Cedar Tree’s words, the tribe began using Arapaho dictionaries, night classes, CDs made by the tribe, and anything they could find to help resuscitate the language. In the end, “we knew in our hearts that immersion was the only way we were going to turn this around,” said Mr. Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe.
He was referring not just to the potential for the Arapaho language’s extinction but to a host of other problems that have long plagued the vast reservation, which the tribe shares with the Eastern Shoshone.
“Language-immersion schools offer an environment that goes beyond teaching the language,” Ms. Slaughter said. “It provides a safe place where a child’s roots are nurtured, its culture honored, and its being valued.”
According to tribal statistics and the United States Attorney’s Office in Wyoming, 78 percent of household heads on the reservation are unemployed, the student dropout rate is 52 percent and crime has been rising.
Most recently, in June, three teenage girls were found dead in a low-income housing complex. The F.B.I. has not yet released autopsy results, but many tribal members think drugs or alcohol were involved. The deaths left the reservation reeling. Officials here hope that the school will herald a positive change, just as programs elsewhere have helped native youth become conversational in their tribal languages, enhancing cultural pride and participation in the process. A groundswell of language revitalization efforts has led to successful Indian immersion schools in Hawaii, Montana and New York.
Studies show that language fluency among young Indians is tied to overall academic achievement, and experts say such learning can have other positive effects.
“Language seems to be a healing force for Native American communities,” said Ellen Lutz, executive director of Cultural Survival, a group based in Cambridge, Mass., that is working with the Northern Arapaho. At a recent ceremony to celebrate the school’s opening, held in an old tribal meeting hall, three young girls sang shyly in Arapaho. Behind them, a row of elders sat quietly, their faces wizened and stoic, legs shuffling rhythmically as familiar words carried through the building.
“They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was looking,” Mr. Wilson said, referring to the elders. “If we lose that language, we lose who we are.”