Like most tribal communities in North America, the Crow Tribe in Montana faces challenges in keeping its indigenous language alive, but also finds that the work of revitalizing language brings the community together.
Compared with many other tribes, the Crow has a relatively large number of speakers at about 4,200. However, the share of tribal members who speak Crow fluently saw a sharp drop from about 85 percent 60 years ago to about 30 percent today. The decline is particularly sharp among young speakers. A 2011 survey of three- to five-year-old children attending Head Start and a child care program showed that only 3 percent were fluent, indicating that most children were not speaking Crow as a first language in their homes.
Efforts to revitalize the language include Crow language-immersion programs for children and an initiative to develop language-learning tools and a comprehensive online dictionary. Shared excitement about revitalizing the Crow language has brought people together from many parts of the community to lend a hand, including the local tribal college (Little Big Horn College), public schools, a Catholic school system, tribal government, and elders groups.
Language immersion for young children
A key strategy for revitalizing indigenous languages is teaching children during their early years (see Early childhood Native language immersion develops minds, revitalizes cultures in Community Dividend). While the window for learning language remains open throughout the life span, the earlier children are exposed to a language, the less effort it takes to acquire, on average.
Inspired by successful language immersion programs for young children in Hawaii and in Maori villages in New Zealand, the Crow and other tribes in North America are establishing language immersion programs in their own communities. At the Little Big Horn College’s Chickadee Lodge Immersion School, young children are immersed in the Crow language in both kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Children learn math, science, art, and other subjects using the Crow language. In addition to language immersion, the school provides a multi-generation learning environment with a required family language learning night every two weeks. The school is supported by a federal three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans’ Esther Martinez Immersion Grant program with a 20 percent match from Little Big Horn College (LBHC).
Language immersion has also sprouted in local public and Catholic schools. Seven years ago, St. Labre Indian School started a Crow language immersion preschool program in Pryor, Montana, and 3 years ago an immersion program in Lodge Grass, Montana. Meanwhile, Crow Agency School recently implemented half-day language immersion programs in kindergarten and early elementary classrooms (see pictures from a classroom below, courtesy of the Billings Gazette). Children who start together in kindergarten stay with each other in subsequent grades. Next year the program will expand into third grade.
Children are excited to learn their language, noted Curtis Yarlott, executive director of St. Labre Indian School. “Preschoolers seem to acquire the language a lot faster than the older kids. In terms of engagement, the kids really want to learn the language.”
The language immersion strategy is showing benefits not only for sustaining the Crow language but also for improving the academic performance of participating children. Jason Cummins, principal of Crow Agency School, noted, “More children are proficient in reading and math across the school’s dual-language classrooms than across the English-only classrooms.” Dual-language classrooms also have fewer behavioral issues.
Language skills help build children’s Apsaalooke identity and their ability to converse with parents and grandparents. “Language plays a huge role in a person’s identity and confidence in who they are as a person,” Yarlott said. Dr. Janine Pease, social science and humanities instructor at LBHC and part-time principal of Chickadee Lodge Immersion School, said, “Our school insists children use their Indian names all the time in the classroom, so their identities expand—from having a name like anybody else, to who they are, what their name means, who named them, and understanding their connection to their clan [there are seven Crow clans].”
Cummins noted, “The teachers in the language immersion classrooms are committed to keeping our culture and language alive. In these classrooms, teachers and children don’t just talk about Crow culture, they live the culture through the language. And even though the children may not be fluent yet, they think in Crow.”
Children who are not in language immersion programs have access to Crow language lessons in many elementary school classrooms. Crow language classes are also offered in many middle schools and high schools on the Crow Reservation as a modern language option. However, these children hear fewer Crow words and have fewer opportunities to speak Crow compared with children in immersion settings.
Building language-learning tools and a dictionary
For the past six years, Pease has coordinated the Crow Summer Institute, where Crow language teachers from across the Crow Reservation develop a curriculum and improve their own Crow language skills. Teachers from different schools and school systems network and share best practices.
Work during the Summer Institute has fed into efforts by LBHC, with assistance from The Language Conservancy and the Lakota Language Consortium, to produce three levels of curriculum, each with textbooks, wall posters, flash cards, and DVDs. By the time students complete the curriculum, they acquire about 750 Crow words. The curriculum is distributed across the Crow Reservation for use in immersion classrooms and in schools that offer Crow language classes. In addition, students of all levels have access to an online assessment of Crow language skills.
A few years ago, as teachers began work on the third level of curriculum (they will be starting the fourth level at this year’s Summer Institute), they recognized a need for a larger dictionary. They used three existing Crow dictionaries to create one, online dictionary, but it represented fewer than 10,000 words. “A healthy language actually has something like 40,000 words, and we knew that there were a lot of words missing,” Pease said.
To expand the dictionary, the Crow Language Consortium recruited Crow speakers over a ten-day period in July 2018 to participate in a Rapid Word Collection and Dictionary Workshop. On the first day, 80 speakers attended to start collecting words that referenced a specific topic. Over ten days, small groups of speakers addressed 1,800 different topics. Participants wrote down words and spoke them into an audio recorder. The workshop captured both commonly used words and words speakers might have last used during their childhoods or with their grandparents. At the end of ten days, almost 15,000 words had been recorded. Pease estimates there will be 20,000 words in the new online dictionary, including language specific to men and women.
The dictionary project created a lot of excitement about revitalizing the Crow language in the community. “People stop me all the time, right up to this day, and say, ‘I hope we do this again, because I thought of a whole bunch more words,’” Pease said.
Looking ahead, Yarlott hopes to see Crow language use return to where it was several decades ago. “It wasn’t long ago when high school basketball players would shout instructions on the court to each other in Crow. In the future, we want to see the vitality of the Crow language in the everyday activities our children are involved with.”
In a February 2019 visit to the greater Billings area, including the Crow Reservation, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis staff met with local leaders to build awareness of community development needs and support the development of social capital within the area’s community development sector. Through this initiative, staff were introduced to the comprehensive and collaborative language perpetuation efforts of the Crow tribal community.