|The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield. All content © Native Sun News.
Free Spirit Campgrounds, at the base of Bear Butte, was recently home to about 40 Cheyenne tribal members who attended the 1st Language Immersion Camp, an intense learning environment for Cheyenne language and traditions. Photo by Clara Caufield
Northern Cheyenne Adult Language Immersion Camp
By Clara Caufield
BEAR BUTTE — Free Spirit Campgrounds, a rustic site located at the base of Bear Butte (Noavose to the Cheyenne), was recently purchased by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to provide lodging for Cheyennes who come to the sacred mountain to pray.
Recently it was home to about 40 Cheyenne tribal members from July 21 – August 2 who attended the 1st Language Immersion Camp, an intense learning environment for Cheyenne language and traditions. The camp was funded by a State of Montana grant provided to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in collaboration with Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC).
Tribal member students ranged from those with no speaking ability to those who understand the language with limited speaking ability but not fluency ranging in age from 18 – early 70’s. Oldest student, Albert LaRance said he came because the loss of the Cheyenne language “fills him with dread. When I was young, we were often discouraged from speaking Cheyenne, especially at school. I’m glad it’s different now. At my age, I might not ever become fluent, but I’ll try to muddle along best I can,” he said. “It’s never too late to learn.”
Dr. Richard Littlebear, CDKC President explained “The Adult Language Immersion Camp is one of several activities conducted under a Pilot Project to encourage daily conversational Cheyenne among our people, now is great jeopardy. We selected Bear Butte for the location because it is most sacred to the Northern Cheyenne, an atmosphere where we can focus solely on the language, tradition and spirituality without distraction.”
A cadre of certified language instructors used the Total Physical Response (TPR) method of language instruction. Littlebear explained that the method was developed by Dr. James Asher, San Diego State University. TPR replicates how a first language is learned, put into curricular form. It employs body and muscular movement to help learn a language. For example, students respond to commands such as “Stand, sit, walk, pick up something or listen (which this writer finds challenging). During the camp, everyone used their Cheyenne names and engaged in daily Cheyenne conversation including at meals. “When you are immersed in a language, terms for food and eating are some of the first things you must learn,” said this writer, also camp cook. “If they wanted to eat, they had to use Cheyenne words. Talk it.”
“When the students are done, they will not necessarily be fluent in Cheyenne, but they will have the basic building blocks to continue learning,” Littlebear noted.
In addition to daily small group language instruction, a wide number of knowledgeable tribal presenters shared information with the participants. These included: Eugene Limpy, Tribal caretaker of Bear Butte Tribal House, “Protocols of Bear Butte and Prayer Cloths; Linwood Tallbull “Ethobotony, Taboos and Healings”; Alberta Fisher, Tom Rockroads: “Female and Male Roles, Society Rules”; Tony Prairebear “Sweats”; and Gilbert Whitedirt “Traditional Matters”. Participants also went on field trips, including the south side of Bear Butte, where many trekked to top of the mountain. Pam Sooktis (Living Woman) said of that experience “My family members come to Bear Butte to fast and it renews our spirits, our mind, body and souls. I know that my late grandfather, Charlie Whitedirt, who fought for the Cheyennes to have a place here, is happy that we are here, speaking our language.”
Staff member, Merlin Red Cherries (Last Star Keeper), a fluent speaker, emphasized “Bear Butte is where we are re-kindling and re-storing our language. It is a place of rejuvenation for the Cheyenne and many other Tribes. It can bring us back together.”
Robert Simpson (Black Horse) who also operates a nonprofit, Black Horse Pride for the purpose of instilling cultural pride in young people on and near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation concurred. During a recent cedar blessing, he reminded fellow campers. “We came to Bear Butte to learn language, but it can also encourage us to follow a better path such as sobriety, respect, self-confidence and spiritual growth. Sobriety is a hard path for many of our people, including myself, but it is necessary for spiritual growth and a positive attitude. Even in Lame Deer, we pray to Bear Butte. Being here for two whole weeks is a very special blessing which most Cheyenne’s do not get to enjoy.”
Wamblee Rowland, (Smoky) 35, was eager to share his experience at the Immersion Camp. “I really enjoyed the time I spent at Bear Butte learning the language and traditions. My motivation was needing an escape from the negative influences of the Reservation. I needed to find direction in my life through the positive power of prayer and the Creator (Maheo’o) and Bear Butte has been a very accomplishing experience.”
Rowland who is committed to continuing the study of language and tradition, expressed sentiment shared by other students.” I encourage other tribal members, especially youth to attend future camps. It could be a life-changing experience.”
A more mature camper, Marsha Small, a NAS graduate student at MSU, Bozeman attended “because our language is becoming minimal and we need to re-enforce it to hold our sovereignty as a Nation.” Small hopes to share her knowledge with future students, including non-Indians. “It is important for Native people to share accurate information and insights about our way of life.”
Anthony Whitedirt, Sun Trail (23), a CDKC student who understands Cheyenne and had some speaking ability before the camp said: “I wanted to be part of what I hope will be the first annual language camp, especially at the “Cheyenne Holy Place” where we were first taught ways from Sweet Medicine. Hopefully, we will be able to re-learn and re-teach our language. Bear Butte is a special place of teaching. It’s very special to share time with my people. When we go home, we will greet one another in Cheyenne and use our Cheyenne names.”
Red-headed Jade Bement, (Spotted Wolf), 19, a particularly motivated participant was only previously exposed to the Cheyenne language as a student at Reservation schools. As there are no Cheyenne speakers in his family he “exposed himself to the language” because “everyone says we are losing our language. Being a Cheyenne is knowing the language. Me, being light-skinned the only way I can prove being a Tsististas is to know and talk the language. Other than showing them my I.D.”
After the camp, Jade plans to spend more time with elders and Cheyenne speakers to continue practicing conversational Cheyenne in order to become a fluent speaker. A college student, he aims for a law degree and future service in tribal government. “I want to dedicate myself to serving my people and knowing the language.” He credits Mildred “Mustard” Red Cherries, mentor and camp instructor with encouraging him. “She knows I can sing (Indian songs) too. There aren’t too many young people back home interested in the language, unlike Crow where they all speak fluently. I think that is cool. We should be speaking our language too. More young people need to get motivated.”
Dr. Littlebear, lead camp organizer expressed his appreciation to the State of Montana, CDKC and the Tribe for supporting the camp. “It has been trial and error, but overall it has been motivational to the participants. I believe we are developing a new core of Cheyenne language learners, however to be successful this has to be a sustained effort. I would like to see an annual Language Immersion Camp for adults. We have been conducting camps on the Reservation for youth and teens, but this is a first, but not the last.”
Camp participants included: Dana Bear Robe (Killsnight Man); Rayette King (Living Woman); Tim Whistling Elk (Chosen One); Pamela Abeyta (Living Woman); Robert Simpson (Black Horse); Aline Killsontop (Blue Tipi Woman); Rachel Carrol Pethers (Sage Woman, jokingly Older than Dirt); Serwared Robe (Yellow Horse Woman); Elrena Whitedirt; Marsha Small (Blue Tipi Woman); Evelyn High Bull; Donald Seminole (White Weasel); Charlotte Bear Robe (Bear Woman); Adeline Spotted Elk (Young Ceremonial Woman); Mildred Red Cherries ( Walking Woman); Catherine Whiteman (Good Voice Woman); Albert LaRance (Bird Chief); Karen Stone (Sage Woman); Meredith Tallbull (Big Chief); Jozette Limpy (Elk Woman); Ainhus Tallbull (Little Hawk); Wamblee Rowland (Smoking); Anthony Whitedirt; Victoria Bearcomesout; Donita Sioux (Bird Woman) and Judy Tallbull (Water Carrying Woman).
Staff included Collins Littlewhiteman (Red Antelope); Abby Russell; Shannon “Hoss” Small and Merlin Red Cherries (Last Star Keeper), security. Clara Caufield (Teeth Woman), cook and Regina Blackbear, Arapaho (Miracle Sound in the Sky),cook’s helper; Waylon Limpy (One who Limps), caretaker; Dr. Richard Littlebear (Howling Bird) and Mina Seminole (Youngest Girl Child); Steve Small (Grass Hopper), administration.
(Clara Caufield can be reached at email@example.com)
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