RIVERTON, Wyo. At 69, her eyes soft and creased with age, Alvena Oldman remembers how the teachers at St. Stephens boarding school on the Wind River Reservation would strike students with rulers if they dared to talk in their native Arapaho language.
We were afraid to speak it, she said. We knew we would be punished.
More than a half-century later, only about 200 Arapaho speakers are still alive, and tribal leaders at Wind River, Wyomings only Indian reservation, fear their language will not survive. As part of an intensifying effort to save that language, this tribe of 8,791, known as the Northern Arapaho, recently opened a new school where students will be taught in Arapaho. Elders and educators say they hope it will create a new generation of native speakers.
This is a race against the clock, and were in the 59th minute of the last hour, said a National Indian Education Association board member, Ryan Wilson, whom the tribe hired as a consultant to help get the school off the ground. Like other tribes, the Northern Arapaho have suffered from the legacy of Indian boarding institutions, established by the federal government in the late 1800s to Americanize Native American children. It was at such schools that teachers instilled the kill the Indian, save the man philosophy, young boys had their traditional braids shorn, and students were forbidden to speak tribal languages.
The discipline of those days was drummed into an entire generation of Northern Arapaho, and most tribal members never passed down the language. Of all the remaining fluent speakers, none are younger than 55.
That is what tribal leaders hope to change. About 22 children from pre-kindergarten through first grade started classes at the school a rectangular one-story structure with a fresh coat of white paint and the words Hinono Eitiino Oowu (translation: Arapaho Language Lodge) written across its siding.
Here, set against an endless stretch of windswept plains and tufts of cottonwoods, instructors are using a state-approved curriculum to teach students exclusively in Arapaho. All costs related to the school, which has an operating budget of $340,000 a year, are paid for by the tribe and private donors. Administrators plan to add a grade each year until it comprises pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade classes.
I want my son to talk nothing but Arapaho to me and my grandparents, said Kayla Howling Buffalo, who enrolled her 4-year-old son, RyLee, in the school.
Ms. Howling Buffalo, 25, said she, too, had been inspired to take Arapaho classes because her grandmother no longer has anyone to speak with and fears she is losing her first language.
Such sentiments are not uncommon on the reservation and have become more pronounced in the five years since Helen Cedar Tree, at 96 the oldest living Northern Arapaho, made an impassioned plea to the tribes council of elders.
She said: Look at all of you guys talking English, and you know your own language. Its like the white man has conquered us, said Gerald Redman Sr., the chairman of the council of elders. It was a wake-up call.
Look at all of you guys talking English, and you know your own language. Its like the white man has conquered us,
A true and troubling statement. If they lose that, they lose themselves.
"If today I had a young mind to direct, to start on the journey of life, and
I was faced with the duty of choosing between the natural way of my
forefathers and that of the... present way of civilization, I would, for its
welfare, unhesitatingly set that child's feet in the path of my
forefathers. I would raise him to be an Indian!"
"We learned to be patient observers like the owl. We learned cleverness
from the crow, and courage from the jay, who will attack an owl ten times
its size to drive it off its territory. But above all of them ranked the
chickadee because of its indomitable spirit."
Wintu Woman, 19th Century