Tribal immersion schools rescue language and culture
Twenty years ago, Darrell Kipp moved back to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. He'd been away from his birthplace long enough to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam, earn two master's degrees, and establish a career as a technical writer.
He and a small group of Blackfeet friends longed to go home again, to reconnect with their culture and relearn the language they'd spoken as children. They were dismayed to find out that while they'd been away, the number of fluent speakers of Piegan, the Blackfeet language, had plummeted, and the remaining speakers were all more than 60 years old.
So Mr. Kipp and his friends founded the Piegan Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring and preserving native American languages. In 1995, the institute opened the privately funded Nizipuhwahsin(or Real Speak)Center, which immerses students in the Blackfeet language from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The school's graduates are the first young fluent speakers of the Blackfeet language in a generation. Nizipuhwahsin teacher Shirlee Crow Shoe says the school is not only resuscitating the language, but also helping to preserve Blackfeet culture.
"If you go into Indian country and ask a child 'Who's Indian?' most of the time they'll say 'Oh, it's those people who dance,' " she says.
Her students, by contrast, "will put their hands out and introduce themselves to you in Blackfeet. Learning the language has clarified their identity."
Today, the Nizipuhwahsin Center has 36 students and more applicants than it can accept. But when Kipp first returned to the reservation, he says, he encountered a hostile environment. "We met people who could not only not speak the language, but also had a negative view of the language."