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Keeping a language alive: Co-founder of Blackfoot immersion school

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.missoulian.com/articles/2007/03/14/news/mtregional/news06.txt Keeping a language alive: Co-founder of Blackfoot immersion school in Browning visits
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 16, 2007

      Keeping a language alive: Co-founder of Blackfoot immersion school in
      Browning visits UM this week

      By KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian

      Blackfeet learning Blackfoot - what a novel concept.

      Not long ago it was, Darrell Kipp said Tuesday.

      “Twenty years ago, the notion of revitalizing our language was met with
      hostility. That shocks people today,” said Kipp, a Blackfeet and graduate
      of Harvard University.

      Kipp is on campus at the University of Montana this week, speaking at
      classes and Wednesday night at the Gallagher Business Building about the
      Piegan Institute and the pioneer language immersion school he helped found
      in Browning.

      More than a century of assimilating America's Native people into an
      English-speaking society by “religious and public institutions” was highly
      effective, he said.

      “The conditioning of people to reject or replace something as close to them
      as their language was highly effective,” he said.

      So when Kipp, Dr. Dorothy Still Smoking and Edward Little Plume launched
      Cuts Wood School in downtown Browning in the mid-1990s, they were met with
      antagonism and resentment on the reservation.

      Kipp told of facing the wrath of Blackfeet who told him point-blank that
      speaking the native language was the devil's work. He was called a
      mercenary, bent on exploiting the language in order to sell it.

      It wasn't, “Hey, you shouldn't do that,” Kipp said.

      “It was, ‘What the hell are you doing? Who in the hell do you think you
      are? What are you trying to be - a big Indian and steal everything?' ”

      Perhaps most troubling was the notion that the Cuts Wood School, a K-8
      institution at which only the Blackfoot language is spoken, was out to harm
      the children.

      “I think this really reflects the educational standards of Montana, and
      it's certainly an American philosophy, that the only route to success is an
      English-speaking trek,” he said. “Anything less, or anything different, is
      a serious mistake.”

      Some saw Cuts Wood School as promoting something bordering on child

      “The fact that you would risk your child's mental stability by proposing to
      have your child talk in an archaic language is close to pure negligence,”
      he said, repeating one charge he heard.

      But time and research have proved the language immersion school's value.

      Three of the school's graduates are now in college. Others have scored well
      in testing, including four at off-reservation high schools in Cut Bank,
      Valier and Billings.

      A master's study by a University of Montana psychology student in 2003
      presented what Kipp called a “very powerful case” that Cuts Wood students
      actually outperform those with public school backgrounds.

      “These children have been schooled in a program that never gave them a
      formal English language, yet they go into public schools and excel as
      English-based students,” he said.

      How to explain that?

      “Here at the University of Montana, how many students come from other
      countries with limited English and max out your Ph.D. programs in science
      and math?” Kipp said.

      Cuts Wood also teaches sign language, and the multilingual approach is
      known to succeed in schools, be they American Indian or not.

      That success extends to other disciplines, Kipp maintained.

      In the Blackfoot language, children can count to a million much quicker
      than in English, for example.

      “It's just a shift in a suffix,” he said.

      “The thinking is that tribal languages, because they're archaic, are
      stunted in their ability to deal with sophisticated mathematics. The fact
      of the matter is they're able to incorporate all the attributes of
      modern-day mathematics, but because the language works so differently, they
      often can make quantum leaps, like going from 10 to a million (quickly).”

      The Blackfoot language also doesn't distinguish between gender.

      “Oftentimes you think, how does that reflect, just in world view?” Kipp

      Blackfoot and other tribal languages have a fourth and fifth person in
      their grammatical structure.

      “English-speaking people just can't go there,” and are often repulsed by
      the idea of learning sentence structure and diagramming, Kipp said.

      He said the Blackfoot language is primarily made up of “timeless verbs,”
      most often in the present tense that describe things in an animate state.
      The term for moose translates to “dark moving into the brush.”

      “I think that's a moose,” he said.

      The world isn't divided into animate and inanimate objects. In an office in
      the Native American Studies building on campus, he pointed to a bowl of
      apples, a table, a reporter's shirt.

      “Using English, they're all dead,” he said. “But you make the next step up
      to science, and you get into physics and chemistry, then you realize the
      table's not dead, and there are things going on in your shirt.”

      The Browning school, an offshoot of the Piegan Institute, and another
      launched by the Mohawk tribe were the nation's first American Indian
      language immersion schools. They've been models in recent years for the
      successful Nkwsum (Salish) school in Arlee and the White Clay (Gros
      Ventres) at Fort Belknap.

      In 1990, Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed a Native
      American Language bill that “at least acknowledged the legality of speaking
      our language,” Kipp said. “Native American languages were outlawed until

      Last December, Bush's son signed into law an act providing a competitive
      grant system for native language immersion programs.

      “That's a big jump,” said Kipp. “Twenty years ago you were accosted by your
      own people, told to mind your own business and that Native languages were
      like a vase thrown on the ground - broken forever.”

      Living language

      Darrell Kipp will speak Wednesday night about the work of the Piegan
      Institute in Browning and the emerging national language revitalization
      movement in American Indian communities. The free lecture, at 7 p.m. in the
      University of Montana's Gallagher Business Building, Room 106, is presented
      by Native American Studies department and the Calvin B. Stott Scholar fund.

      Copyright © 2007 Missoulian
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