Photos by Nikki Carlson
Story by Jared Ritz
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - A semi-circle of nine tepees stands bearing the harsh Hi-Line wind on an overcast day. Sitting in a circle about 200 feet from the structures, about 30 people are gathered to do something that should seemingly be an everyday event. But, due to lost interest over the years and societal pressures, this "thing" has been all but lost.
From the participant's faces, it seems those gathered are doing little more than talking. And this is true. The entire event, lasting Wednesday through Monday, has one main objective: to talk.
The significant thing is, those gathered are speaking Cree. Only Cree.
It's the morning of the second day of Rocky Boy's Cree Language Institute 2005, a full-immersion six-day gathering meant to lay out the basics of the ancient Cree language to anyone interested in learning in a short amount of time. Taking place at the Sybil Sangrey Colliflower Memorial Arena grounds in Box Elder, 22 instructors will teach small groups of students how to speak Cree without ever speaking a single syllable in English. It's a trial by fire, but it gets the job done, said coordinator Louise Stump.
Stump, 62, is a former Cree teacher and current English language acquisition program coordinator at Stone Child College, and knows firsthand that the approach works. In fact, just like most of her generation on the reservation, this same method is how she learned her second language - English.
Stump said she didn't speak a word of English until her first day in a white school. Ditto for Stump's aunt, 67-year-old Ruby Stump, who didn't learn English until arriving at Devlin Elementary School in Havre when she was 9, and only then by mimicking the words spoken by her teacher.
Helen Parker, an instructor, tried to calm the nonspeakers' nerves before instruction began, letting them know that the process they are undertaking really isn't much different than what the elders went through. The speech probably did little, though, because it, too, was spoken in Cree. The approach may be frustrating for the students, but their teachers are living proof of how well it can work.
"When I went to school, I didn't know a word of English," said 70-year-old Georgiana Roasting Stick, who is an instructor at the camp, "but if we spoke Cree, we'd get punished."
Even though full immersion is the goal, mistakes still happen. During Thursday's opening ceremony, Stump accidentally said an English word in the middle of a Cree monologue. Her uncle, Videl Stump, joked about the instructors' punishments.
"Every English word they use, I want a dollar deducted from their pay," he said in Cree.
Louise Stump said that in her lifetime the Cree language has gone from something that was used almost exclusively in both home and public life to something that most people have little to no knowledge about. People of her generation, she said, had grandparents and parents who spoke only Cree. Now, as the tribe's elders continue to pass away, the number of people who can speak is dwindling rapidly.
"There's a lot of things (about Cree culture) even our people don't know about," and the lack of Cree language is a glaring example of this, she said. "That's why I am putting on this language institute."
Young people, especially, she said, know very little about the language, and those who do are for some reason embarrassed about it.
"They feel it's not a requirement (to know Cree), and they're kind of ridiculed for speaking their language," she said. "There are some who are out there who speak it, but refuse to."
Chelsey St. Pierre, 18, said she doesn't think young people are ashamed to speak the language, but instead simply don't know enough to use it. Her friend Josephine Ankinson, 23, agreed, but added that people their age do use Cree quite often to "tease around."
Cree is taught in all levels of the reservation's school system, with students taking elementary-, middle school- and high school-level classes. Henry Daychild, who has taught Cree to seventh- and eighth-graders at Rocky Boy Public Schools for 10 years, said most of his students could read the language, but only a few could speak it. He said that may be because most of their parents don't speak Cree, and, like any other student attempting to learn a second language, the lessons rarely stick if they don't speak it outside of the classroom.
Everybody interviewed said a majority of parents on the reservation don't know or at least don't use Cree, leaving some elders wondering just how long it can last without a big change happening.
"A lot of our families are beginning to lose the language," Ruby Stump said. "I would say our generation is the last who speak."
"We believe if we keep having sessions like this, we'll bring back our language," she said.
Rick Sunchild, a Cree language and history instructor at Rocky Boy High School, said that if these sorts of sessions and other programs do get through to people, the language can live on forever.
"Once you've grown up with it, it's like second nature," he said. "Once you learn it, you never lose it."
And although it may be easier for people like him, who didn't speak English until kindergarten, learning the language from adolescence on is anything but impossible.
"A few words here, a few words there. Pretty soon, they got a good grasp of it," he said.
Sunchild is more optimistic than others about the future of the language.
"Our tribe is not really in danger of losing it. It's kept alive in the schools," he said. "The fire is still there. But our goal is to make it a great, big forest fire."