Dr. Janine Pease on Revitalizing the Crow – Apsáalooke – Language


Dr. Janine Pease on Revitalizing the Crow – Apsáalooke – Language

By Dr. Janine Pease

Shoodaagii! Itchik Daloom! Greetings, it's good you have come!   

My interest in Indigenous language immersion began in 2001 when, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the American Indian College Fund, I traveled to and observed over 30 Indigenous language immersion camps, nests and schools to interview teachers, elders, students and community members about their language immersion experience. My monograph, Native American Language Immersion: Innovative Education for Children and Families, describes this exploration and illustrates the benefits of retaining Indigenous languages. 

For the past seven years at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, I have instructed social science and humanities courses. Last year I became the principal of the Chickadee Lodge Language Immersion School in Crow Agency. Chickadee Lodge is a place where kindergarten and first-grade children can learn, and achieve age-appropriate fluency in the Apsáalooke language, all while receiving a quality education.

Assessing the Crow Nation’s Language Needs

Language revitalization efforts began on the Crow Reservation in 2011 when Crow Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle and the Crow Tribal Legislature appointed me the Cabinet Head of Education. Chairman Black Eagle was concerned about Crow language fluency losses among Crow children, prompting those of us in the Education Department to assess Head Start students’ fluency rates. We assessed 304 children ages 3 to 5. The Head Start staff in six reservation district centers used a five-point fluency rating, and we found that  3.2% of the 4. 5 and 5 year olds were fluent, 14% had limited fluency, 18% had understanding/no fluency, 29% had limited understanding, and 36% had no understanding.

After documenting just how endangered our precious Crow language was, we immediately wrote a proposal to the Administration for Native American (ANA) to establish a Crow language immersion stream in the Crow Head Start. Although our first application was unsuccessful, our second application was awarded with three years of funding to establish a stream of Crow language immersion classes that started with 3 year olds, then 4 year olds and finally 5 year olds.  Immersing children in age-appropriate classes, taught entirely in Apsáalooke, instills the children with a sense of pride in the Crow Nation history and Crow Nation culture.

This grant also provided summertime teacher training and language immersion curriculum development initiatives. Therefore, I also coordinate the Crow Summer Institute, a three-week-long program for teachers of the Crow language in the 14 schools serving Crow children (we just completed the 6th Annual Institute), and the Apsaalooke Dictionary Project – Rapid Word Collection (RWC), which we began in July 2018.  The RWC is a dictionary that reflects the cultural and linguistic nuances inherent in the Crow language. 

Identifying Community Partners

Our partners in language revitalization include the Crow Agency Elementary School, which has five half-day language immersion classrooms, and the Labre Catholic Schools, which has six half-day language immersion classrooms and one full-day immersion classroom. Other partners include five middle schools and four high schools serving Crow Indian students that have Crow language classes, along with Little Big Horn College’s sequence of four Crow language classes (including Plains Indian sign language). The Language Conservancy and the Dakota Language Consortium have given major assistance with the learning materials development, including textbooks Level I, II and III, a poster series, flash cards and a DVD.
We invited fluent Crow speakers from six districts to assist with efforts to compile the dictionary, from among our 2,500 speakers. The first day was unfamiliar for the 50 who responded to the call. This new process took some getting used to. As we got into the routine, these efforts led to more fascination and intriguing group interactions that sparked memory of words speakers may not have used since their childhoods or with their grandparents long ago in the 1940s and 1950s. One elder Crow speaker found words in his memory that he had not used in a long time. The topics evoked memories of their childhood and community gatherings. One participant went home and shared the topic with his wife and their conversation triggered more words.
There were other discoveries the process brought out. For example, we discovered there were several younger speakers whose grandparents raised them, kaa’liishbaabite. Elders found veritable fountains of Crow language knowledge among several of these relatively young Apsaalooke people. The value or treasure of these experiences are beyond measure.

Stabilizing the Apsáalooke Language

A dictionary is a learning tool that stabilizes the language. Our learners will have this resource for their quest to achieve fluency and language teachers will have this rich resource to complement their lessons.

Through this process, speakers became aware of their personal contributions as well as the broad language knowledge of others. We realized the depth of our language knowledge in our people, our elders and some younger speakers, too.  We started the Apsáalooke Dictionary Project with a goal of 10,000 words in 10 days, and gathered 14,850 words (both written in the orthography and audio-recorded by our elders). 

Our dictionary has been a community effort that reflects our Apsáalooke culture and its unique attributes. For example, the Apsáalooke language is specific to the male and female language, addressing family members, even how words are pronounced. We chose to have this represented in the dictionary. The word recording needed to be specific to the way men and women speak the language. Our speakers expressed that preference.

We want our Crow language learners to have the chance to learn men’s and women’s Crow language, as they utilize the dictionary in their learning.  Rather than have a dictionary that is generic or without gender, we are following the way our language is spoken in today’s practice. This is typical to Indigenous languages around the world. 
Insights and Lessons Learned

Language revitalization has remarkable benefits for the language learners:

  1. The children in our language immersion classrooms (both half- and full-day) have better standardized test scores than those classrooms instructed exclusively in English.
  2. Immersion students acquire age-appropriate fluency that enables them to converse with Apsaalooke parents, grandparents and even become teachers for their siblings.
  3. Language knowledge becomes a part of their young identity, and builds them as definitively Apsaalooke people.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, language immersion for over 200 Crow children in the primary grades reverses the centuries’ strong endangerment trajectory of our Crow language.

Our future outlook is a vital Crow Language, Bii’luukaalilaah!  Speak Crow!


About the Author

Dr. Janine Pease, American Indian educator, voting rights advocate and great grandmother, is an enrolled Crow tribal member. Janine holds degrees in sociology and anthropology from Central Washington University (1970), and advanced degrees in higher education from Montana State University (1987 & 1994). She resides in Hardin, Montana, with her four-generation family.

At Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, she is a social science and humanities instructor, the accreditation officer, and part-time principal of the Chickadee Lodge Language Immersion School. Janine coordinates the Crow Summer Institute for teachers of the Crow language and the Crow Dictionary Project, 2013-present.

Janine is the author of Native American Language Immersion: Innovative Native Education for Children & Families, 2003, based on her observations of Indigenous language immersion initiatives.