All over Indian country, tribal elections will soon be in full swing. We will hear much talk (most of it in English) and certainly many good ideas for improving life on our reservation homelands. But, there is one subject we don’t hear much about from elected officials or those who aspire to be elected: the preservation of our tribal languages.
Instead, the tribal colleges have been taking the lead in the battle to record and save tribal languages and more important to promote the development of new fluent speakers. In many Tribes, such as Northern Cheyenne there is an alarming and very rapid loss of fluent speakers, most of them who are elderly or close to it. At Northern Cheyenne there are only an estimated 550 fluent Cheyenne speakers among an enrolled membership of over 11,000. That is about 10% of the approximately 5,000 who live on the reservation, where the language is most often spoken and thus easiest to learn, especially through formal classes at Chief Dull Knife College.
For the past few years, the issue of language preservation has become commonly discussed in various tribal forums. But not in the Tribal Council chambers. With the assistance of the State, in the past few years each Montana Tribe has received funding to pursue language preservation strategies enabling them to develop and implement many activities which have encouraged a renewed interest and commitment to the language. Generally, the Tribes have entrusted the tribal colleges with this responsibility, offering little or no matching funds. My mother, of the boarding school era commented “Isn’t it funny how times change? When I was a youngster we were severely punished at BIA Schools for speaking Cheyenne and now the government wants the young ones to learn it. They should make up their minds.”
The writing is on the wall – we have made up our minds that saving the Cheyenne language is essential. Not just in a written form, but in a living vibrant way shared by tribal members on a daily basis. This will require a sustained undertaking and tribal officials are in a key position to lead the way. Right now, their leadership is mainly confined to enacting resolutions of support for language-related initiatives. But there is so much more that they could do. Here are a few simple suggestions:
1. We could legally change the name of our Tribe. Though we are known throughout the world as the “Fighting Cheyenne”, Cheyenne is not even a word in our language. It is an English corruption of a mistranslation. In our own language we are the Tsistsas and Suhtio people. The simple step of reclaiming our own name could be a powerful signal to the world and to our young ones. “Na Tsistsas or Na Suhtai” (I am one of the people) is one of the strongest sentences in our language.
2. Tribal officials and tribal employees should be required to engage in classes on our tribal history and culture, federal Indian law and policy and yes, language as part of their job duties. I suggest that a few hours a week be set-aside to develop a well-informed and literate tribal work force. Yes, with pay. The Council should set the example. If they want to lead and serve the Cheyenne, this could be a first, profound step. Recently a tribal member suggested on Facebook that a requirement for the Tribal Presidency be fluency in our language. This met with mixed response, but I ask: Could a person be the President of Mexico without speaking Spanish?
3. Conduct Council meetings in our tribal language. If our leaders don’t understand Tsistsas/Suhtio, interpreters and translators could be provided. And of course, since many non-Indians meet with the Council, say such as our legal advisors, there are times when English must be accommodated, but in the main, why don’t we use our own language. Sooner or later, our non-Cheyenne speaking leaders would start getting the hang of things. If not, maybe they shouldn’t be leaders.
4. Put the money where our mouths are (or should be). As we all know, grant monies don’t last forever. The Tribal governments should provide funding for tribal language programs and activities and commit to doing this over time.
5. Enact legislation which requires all schools located on Reservations to continue strong language education efforts. Here is a novel idea: Tribal leaders could actually go to the schools, encourage students to speak our language and interact with them. The legendary Tribal President John Woodenlegs used to do just that and there are many tribal members today (including myself) who tell that his personal interest and encouragement changed our lives.
If our leaders are sincerely interested in saving our languages, I’m sure they can generate many other ideas. It will be interesting to see if this subject is discussed by the candidates. Ironically, for the most part, that conversation would be conducted in the English language. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sta-va-sa-whooms (phonetic spelling) or I’ll see you again.
(Contact Clara Caufield at firstname.lastname@example.org.)