Fading Fluency

By Luella Brien

From Perceptions: A special report on race in Montana by the University of Montana School of Journalism (2005).

Before I am a journalist, I am Apsáalooke—a child of the long-beaked bird, a Crow. Before I am a student, I am a Crow. Before I am a mother, a sister, or a friend, I am a Crow.

I try to be everything a Crow woman should be. I know how to dance like a Crow woman. I am teaching my 23-month-old twin sons how to dance like Crows. I will braid their hair Crow style. Everything about me is typical of a Crow Indian, except the way I speak. There is no hint of an accent to give away my ancestry. Because of the language I lack, the world outside my reservation seems more accepting. My lack of an accent and my French last name has made life easier for me to be a Crow, while not being seen as an Indian.

I am a Crow and I live and navigate in a world of people who are not. It’s a world full of people who are either fascinated by my culture or disdainful of my adherence to it. It is a delicate balance, one I learned from my mother, who learned it from her mother.

Crow children grow up in a world rich with culture and language. We learned to walk on the right side of the hallway in grade school, but we also were taught what clans we belong to. We learned to listen to commands and compliments in both English and Crow.

We were submersed in the language, the culture, in traditional social interactions. We were surrounded by the beauty of the Crow people.

My reservation is situated in southeast Montana, its western border near Billings, the state’s largest city, though the populated area of the reservation is an hour’s drive away. The tribe boasts an enrollment of roughly 10,000 members. While only about half of them live on the reservation, close to 80 percent speak Crow. It’s the most widely spoken native language in Montana.

Crows speak Crow. That’s tacitly understood, even on other reservations. When I confess that I can’t speak Crow, I get odd looks from Crows and non-Crows alike.

You can’t do some things if you don’t speak Crow. I could never run for tribal chairman because tribal business is conducted in Crow. I have no idea what the Crow Fair camp crier is saying during his morning announcements. I often don’t know what’s going on in tribal court because a lot of proceedings are in Crow. I am not totally ignorant of the language. When I worked at a gas station I had to learn to understand phrases in Crow, because people wanted to know what time it was or how much something cost.

But the only real way for my children and me to learn the language is to live on the reservation and immerse ourselves in it. Becoming a fluent Crow speaker could take years for me. Learning to speak those familiar tones would mean I’d have to sacrifice my time off the reservation. I want to learn, but I also want to finish my degree and start working as a journalist.

I feel responsible for the slow death of my language. I, and others my age, are not carrying on the tradition of our language. We are standing by as the voice of our ancestors fades.

My grandmother Beverly Wilson Big Man, my link to the past and the old ways, is also a springboard for the future and the new ways. My grandmother graduated with high honors from Eastern Montana College in 1976. She had six children and a husband who was recovering from a heart attack. My mother graduated from high school that same year.

My grandmother knows how being confined to the reservation affected the Crow elders. She spent part of her childhood with her grandmother, Pretty Shield.

Pretty Shield, who was born in 1856, was a revered medicine woman who grew up before the Crow were forced onto the reservation. I remember hearing my grandmother tell me how Pretty Shield kept a bear cub as a pet.

When I was younger, my grandmother told me Pretty Shield didn’t like living in town, “She wanted to live in the old ways, but she knew she was getting older so she finally moved into town,” she recalls.

Pretty Shield shared an old cabin in Crow Agency with many of her grandchildren. My grandmother told me they would take care of her while Pretty Shield took care of them.

In 1932, Frank Bird Linderman wrote a book about her, an oral history. She was one of few Indian women who told their own stories. When I spend time with my grandmother, I am reminded of Pretty Shield, a woman I could never know.

Pretty Shield spoke the old Crow language. Her husband, Goes Ahead, also spoke old Crow. Back then everyone spoke Crow in the way their ancestors had for centuries.

The Crow are thought to have separated from the Hidatsa and developed a distinct language around the year 1000. My grandmother remembers the old language, although she doesn’t speak it now.

The old language was more descriptive. Words were lengthy as were the stories behind every word. Even the name “Crow” was more descriptive than the word the white man called us. We called ourselves Apsáalooke, which means “children of the large-beaked bird.” White men misinterpreted the signing of the word as the flapping of the wings of a bird and just called us “crow,” a name we then took to calling ourselves. The new Crow is a tightened, shorted version that came back to the reservation after children began returning home from boarding schools.

New Crow, the language Crows use now, is a symbol of the persistence of the tribe as well as our ability to evolve rather than give up.

“I remember my dad spoke old Crow; so did your grandpa,” my grandmother told me during one of our late nights. “I knew what they were saying but I’d answer them in new Crow.”

When I was young my grandparents told us about the old Crow language; we heard it almost every day. My grandfather was a full-blood Crow; raised in the old ways he spoke the old language.

My grandparents would converse in Crow, both the old language and the new. Most old Crow speakers are gone now. They’ve taken a piece of the past with them. But many Crow speakers fear even this present version of the language is in jeopardy.

“Language is the voice of our culture,” says Liz Pretty On Top, Crow language instructor at the Crow Agency Public School. “My generation is the last generation to really be fluent in Crow.”

Pretty On Top works as a student advocate at the grade school, but at the request of the students she has been teaching Crow language for five years. Among her 268 fourth, fifth and sixth grade students, only four are fluent Crow speakers. Those four speak Crow as their first language.

She’s noticed a big drop in the number of Crow speakers on the reservation and even in her family.

“My kids used to be fluent Crow speakers,” she says. “When they were young they spoke mostly in Crow, but now they don’t. I don’t know where they lost it.

“They say they sound funny when they speak the language,” she says.

I can relate to Pretty On Top’s children. I always feel funny when I’m trying to speak Crow.

If you mispronounce a syllable it can change the meaning of your entire thought, and fluent Crow speakers don’t let it slide by unnoticed.

Pretty On Top agrees that fear is the biggest challenge for her students. “My students are comfortable trying with me, but they won’t go up to someone else and speak Crow, because they will get teased for saying something wrong.”

And most of her students, like her children, say they don’t speak Crow because they sound funny when they do. The idea that their native language sounds alien to them concerns her.

“They understand what I’m telling them, but they just don’t want to speak it,” she says.

She also worries that the world outside the reservation has too much influence on the youth.

“It’s almost hopeless,” Pretty On Top says.

Kathy Dawes, a Crow Agency Head Start teacher, shares Pretty On Top’s concerns.

Dawes has been a Head Start teacher on the reservation for 10 years. She says she, too, has noticed a decline in the number of young Crow speakers.

“They are just not getting it at home,” Dawes says. “The mom is key; if the mother speaks Crow the children will.”

Only a few generations ago everyone spoke Crow. What happened?

To most Indians the answer lies in the boarding schools Crow children were sent to. We know of the stories about how our great-grandparents were shipped to boarding school, only to have their language stripped along with their braids.

Like World War II veterans or Holocaust survivors, most people who went to boarding schools don’t talk about their experiences. My grandmother has told me that some people would get beaten so badly they ran away and risked dying along the way home rather than staying at the schools.

We know the sacrifices made by those before us. One major sacrifice was the language. The ones who came back from the boarding school came back with a different version of the language. They saved as much of it as they could. They did not want to forget.

I always wondered why my parents were never taught the language. I realize now that my grandparents and their parents faced prejudice when they spoke Crow. They came to think that it was better to just learn to speak in English. Maybe it would spare the next generation.

Both of my parents understand new Crow. At times my mother will say things in Crow. Ahmuushík, she will say. I ate a lot. She has a few other phrases she tries to teach my children, and sometimes I get jealous, because I don’t remember her trying to teach me. She may have, but I can’t remember, so I learn along with my boys.

My mother doesn’t carry out long conversations in Crow; there is really nothing that could carry over to my two brothers or to me. We don’t blame our parents for not teaching us. We don’t blame our grandparents. These were the cards we were dealt.

Unfortunately, most of the people my age, in their 20’s, have been dealt the same cards. Those who could once speak Crow are like Liz Pretty On Top’s children—unable to go back to the fluency of their youth.

Kathy Dawes raised her children in the country. She is a fluent Crow speaker and when her children were young she stayed home with them. Dawes knows first hand that the mother is key to the proliferation of the language.

“I was able to be at home where everybody spoke Crow,” she says. “My children speak Crow to me, but not to their children and I don’t know why.”

Dawes says her daughter told her it is just easier to do everything in English.

The Dawes family is lucky. Their grandchildren understand Crow.

None of the students in Dawes’ classroom speaks fluent Crow and only three understand it, but that doesn’t stop her from speaking Crow to them. She tells the children everything twice, in Crow and in English. Once a week Dawes creates an environment where the children are immersed in the Crow language.

“They love it; they all want to be the one to answer in Crow,” Dawes says.

Dawes has the Crow language sprinkled lovingly around her classroom.

She has colors: hisshe red, shiilooshe orange, bimmaáhchiia green, shúa blue, shipíte black chia white.

And the alphabet: a, aa, b, ch, d, e, ee, h, i, ii, ia, k, l, m, n, o, oo, p, s, sh, t, u, uu, ua, w, x, and ?

Each day all the children, Crow and non-Crow alike, repeat the numbers: hawáte one, duupe two, dáawiia three, shoopé four, chiaxxó five, akaawé six, sáhpua seven, dúupahpe eight, hawátahpe nine, and pilaké ten.

I remember those days. I remember saying my colors in Crow and learning to count. When we’d ask a question we’d hear an answer in Crow and if we didn’t understand we’d hear it in English.

But it didn’t stick. I didn’t carry that with me to grade school.

I relearned the alphabet in my language class at Little Big Horn College. Teachers used Roman letters to make learning the written language easier. But it’s much harder now than it was 20 years ago.

Dawes is determined to get all her students speaking Crow, but something is standing in the way of progress: parents.

“We need to give the parents a solid foundation so they can keep up with what their children are learning in school,” Pretty On Top says.

Crow Agency Public School principal Gene Gross recognizes the looming language crisis.

“(The students) are not speaking Crow at home,” Gross says. “That’s the problem.”

Gross encourages his Crow instructors at the school to speak to students in both English and Crow, but he fears some of his predecessors at the grade school may have made Crow language taboo to many Crow-speaking teachers.

“Before I was here, speaking Crow was allowed, but it wasn’t encouraged,” Gross says.

Students want to speak the language, but Gross says most youngsters are being raised by their grandparents and the stigma that the grandparents attached to Indian languages in school still lingers.

Grandparents learned the hard way that speaking your language will make life harder. If you sound like a white person then you won’t be treated like a dirty Indian. Children raised by their grandparents carry that view with them.

Principal Gross, who grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, saw the language there die. He wants to keep it here.

He hopes to add Crow language to the curriculum and require students to be fluent in both Crow and English. For now he just encourages Crow-speaking instructors to use the language in class.

Dave Graber is a non-Indian music teacher who tries to give his Indian students a sense of Indian music, as well as non-Indian music.

“When you take the foundation of a culture away from children you sentence them to a deprived learning experience,” Graber says.

Graber has taught his students the Crow flag song, our equivalent of the national anthem, many powwow songs and some Crow lullabies.

For me the lullabies were the hardest to learn. We learned a song about a rabbit eating rosehips in my Conversational Crow class, but it was hard to say all the words.

Iisashpítkaate baliilúupsaaleelak
     kuuwaaléelak kuuwichkapahíssak
Datchawaúan baaóolak eelee
Datchawaúan baaóolak eelee áaxuhkachuua
     Buúshbiik ee
áaxuhkachuua buúshbiik ee
Isbihpeé baawuúshkook ee
Isbihpée baawuúshkook ee

Montana state law requires some form of Indian education in the classroom, though the requirement has been widely ignored.

“Traditional music and language are so important to Indian students, because it gives them a sense of belonging,” Graber says.

Rarely do Indian students gain validation of their culture or themselves in the classroom or outside their reservation. The lack of validation has contributed to the diminishment of the Crow language.

When I was younger there wasn’t as much influence from outside the reservation. We had music and television, but Public Enemy and Bobby Brown didn’t make us want to turn away from our culture. The kids in grade school now face more pressures than I ever did. Drugs, MTV, clothes, and being cool all come earlier in their lives.

Where does speaking Crow fit into it?

They tease each other if they talk in Crow, but when they try to talk like rappers they shout encouragement to each other.

For children and parents alike, many Crow speakers find that life is easier in one language—English.

It’s easier to navigate the world without an accent.

These are the things we need to change.

I will continue to try to learn my language; I want my children to learn.

Our language makes us a tribe, not our braids or beadwork.

We are Apsáalooke and unless we sound like it we will not survive.

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