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Tribal immersion schools rescue language and culture

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Many tribe members grew up ashamed of their native tongue. From the late 19th century until the 1970s, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs forced thousands of students to attend schools far from reservations. Students were punished for speaking their languages, and many returned home with only vague memories of once-familiar words.

Tribes started to regain control of their children's schooling in the late 1960s, and a few established language classes at high schools. But these fledgling efforts didn't produce fluent speakers, the lifeline of any language.

Immersion models

In the early 1980s, Maoris in New Zealand and native Hawaiian Islanders tried a different approach. They founded early childhood immersion centers known as "language nests," systems that have since been extended through the 12th grade.

Students are exposed to Maori or Hawaiian all day, every day, and study English only as a second language.

The immersion-school model reached the mainland United States in 1985, when the Akwesasne Freedom School in upstate New York started creating fluent speakers of the Mohawk language.

Impressed by the success of these schools, Kipp and the rest of the staff at the Piegan Institute thought immersion could bring back the Blackfeet language. To overcome resistance on the reservation, they showed a video of tribal elders speaking about their experiences with the language.

"People realized we did not quit using the language out of choice," Kipp says. "Our parents and grandparents were forced to. They didn't pass the language down because they loved us, and they didn't want us to suffer the same abuse."

Such campaigns are slowly restoring pride in tribal languages and the unique cultures they describe, says Mark Trahant, a journalist and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe. "Now, there's a recognition that people are better off being multilingual. These languages contain a way of looking at the world that has a 10,000 year-old history.... Those of us who don't speak our language are viewed as less prepared for the world."

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