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James Sleeper, Arapaho lead apprentice, leads the Arapaho Language Virtual Class that is held every Wednesday at 6 p.m. CST. Image courtesy Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Language Program utilize virtual classes amid COVID-19 pandemic
Monday, April 5, 2021
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune (CATT)

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect communities worldwide with many communities being forced to utilize resources on a virtual level and think outside of the box when it comes to teaching. Not just in schools, but across Tribal Nations in implementing best teaching practices for language classes.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ Language Program has created an opportunity to allow everyone to be apart of a new learning experience … the Cheyenne and Arapaho Virtual Language Classes.

Held weekly via zoom, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Virtual Language Classes has allowed any person of interest to register and participate in learning the Cheyenne language or Arapaho language.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the language program found itself in a position to strategize ideas and plans in continuing to offer language classes to surrounding communities and beyond. “Before COVID, we were learning Arapaho about 14 hours a week, two hours a day, three days a week, we were putting in hours a day learning over zoom because there’s no Arapaho speakers in Oklahoma,” James Sleeper, lead Arapaho apprentice said.

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Shayna Walker, Arapaho junior apprentice, welcomes all attendees of the Wednesday evening Arapaho Virtual Language Class. Image courtesy Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune

According to World Atlas, before colonialism, approximately 300 languages were used throughout the United States, with approximately 167 languages still in use, and estimates suggesting that only 20 of these Indigenous languages would remain by the year 2050.

With COVID-19 posing a threat to the Cheyenne and Arapaho community, tribal elders were most at risk, with many elders being the speakers the language program turned to. Pre-pandemic, the language program had been utilizing zoom to communicate with tribal elders that lived outside of Oklahoma for the Arapaho language.

Sleeper said there’s a misconception that there are fluent Arapaho speakers in Oklahoma. “Some people can pray and sing and a lot of my relatives are some of those people, but I visited with them and they weren’t fluent conversation wise so we had people from Wyoming that we would meet with and worked with them for about three years,” Sleeper said.

Although the program had been familiar with zoom, Arapaho junior apprentice Shayna Walker said teaching over zoom was a different story.

“We’re trying to teach what we learn at a forward pace, for those years that we learned prior. It was really fast paced, we wanted to gather as much information with language and everything we could learn the best we could. We recorded everything, and that in itself is really time consuming,” Walker said.

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Brendan Haag, Cheyenne junior apprentice, said the COVID pandemic had really taken a toll on the program and their efforts in reaching out to speakers. Haag has been working with the language program for over two years.

“Before COVID hit, we were trying to get as many sessions as we could during the week, about three days out of the week we would have sessions back to back on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays with different speakers,” Haag explained.

Haag said they would drive to different communities to talk with speakers and when COVID had struck, it slowed their progress down in working with tribal elders who spoke the Cheyenne language. Many speakers lived within the area, such as Margie Pewo, Ervin Bull, Ella Akeen, Victor Orange and Henrietta Mann.

When COVID-19 put a halt on their progress, an even greater concern was for the tribal elders in the community when cases began to rise.

“We’ve lost a lot of speakers just even in Oklahoma, such as Belva Hicks and Gloria Uranga, we’ve had a lot of speakers pass away,” Rebecca Risenhoover, language coordinator said.

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Brendan Haag, Cheyenne junior apprentice, introduces himself in his native language during one of the weekly Virtual Language Classes held via Zoom. Image courtesy Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune

The program was put into a vulnerable position with their progress when the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes placed all employees on a temporary furlough that would last eight months.

“Essentially it put a stop to all the progress that we were making as a program, and that’s kind of like a big hit because we were making a lot of progress through the learning style that we have been utilizing, which is immersion, where we don’t read and we don’t write, just repetitions and conversations,” Sleeper said.

Sleeper said it had been important for them to continue their work, but when the pandemic came and caused employees to go on furlough, they came back to work having to reorganize and adjust back into the swing of things.

“The eight months was pretty tough on us and on our elders, just because work stops, our elders don’t stop getting older and we lost almost a year with them, so there’s a lot to say about that,” Sleeper said.

Coming back after being on furlough, Walker said the time away had allowed the program to plan better.

“I think planning for all of us is a really good thing, we weren’t really the best at that so I will say during COVID, the result of all of this is to find what works better for all of us and I feel like we get a lot more done,” Walker said.

Before the virtual language classes became available online, Walker said some people weren’t able to make it to the community classes that were held.

“Now they’re in the comfort of their own home, and it’s available, I do think that’s a plus and that’s helped us … I think COVID has pushed us a lot more in areas that we needed for sure,” Walker said.

Through the virtual classes, Arapaho outreach worker Regina Youngbear said there is more participation online than before.

“Not just from our local tribal members, but also from other tribal members that are out of state, out of jurisdiction and so we are serving those tribal members,” Youngbear said. Through participation, project manager Michelle Johnston said they’ve been able to reach out of state tribal citizens, even reaching as far as England.

“I think the virtual language classes have became something really good for our communities, due to COVID, but also for our elders that aren’t able to get out and about, it’s became a family thing,” Johnston said.

Johnston said the classes would have people on screen along with their children and grandparents. “It’s brought families together, they’re learning together while eating dinner and they’re still participating in our classes, as much as COVID sucks I think it’s actually benefitted in a way too with our teachings and to be able to reach people from far away,” Johnston said.

@calanguage

Teaching our babies how to count! ##speakyourlanguage ##fyp ##native ##nativetiktoks ##cheyenne ##arapaho

♬ original sound – Cheyenne and Arapaho Language

In being able to reach more communities and have more participation, Youngbear said for the program, it has been a confidence booster.

“Because we’re learning, we’re able to teach to the communities and that’s one of the main things that we wanted to happen,” Youngbear said.

And with each class growing with participation, Sleeper said it felt good to hear the language being spoken, whether it’s one word or two.

“It makes us feel really good to hear other people picking up the language that we learn from our elders in Wyoming,” Sleeper said.

In working through the ups and downs in teaching through the zoom classes, Sleeper said they have learned to embrace the chaos that sometimes happens with using Zoom.

“We really enjoyed being around people in the community classes, interacting in-person, but we’re having to figure out how to get that same atmosphere through zoom and we’re just trying to embrace it,” Sleeper said.

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The Cheyenne and Arapaho Language Department staff: Left to right, back row: Carol Whiteskunk, Jazmine Johnson, Michael Elizondo, Brendan Haag and James Sleeper; Left to right, front row: Regina Youngbear, Rebecca Risenhoover, Shaynna Walker and Michelle Johnston. Photo courtesy Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes

And with chaos, also comes new opportunities. When the resolution to appropriate $2 million of tribal funds was approved through the Eighth Legislature for a Master Apprentice Immersion program and Language curriculum for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Sleeper said the program became excited for the future.

“We’ve been learning through this method of immersion and the legislators just passed a resolution for $2 million over two years so we can get more apprentices in, we’re excited for that, we don’t know the timeline or anything on that but we’re excited. Immersion is a slow process but it’s been really beneficial,” Sleeper said.

Sleeper said he’s thankful for the ground level work that’s been happening within the tribes. “I think the focus really should be on that, the ground level work, so that we can really start to capture our language and utilize our languages,” Sleeper said.

Executive Director, Carrie Whitlow, for the Department of Education said the department had started to work on a curriculum for Language and Culture in early March 2020, but was put on hold because of COVID-19.

“We continued to meet via zoom, we lined up what our department was, our strategic plan and our goal for language and culture,” Whitlow said.

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And when employees started to come back, they started having meetings with the program’s staff building a framework for the Cheyenne language and Arapaho language.

“We worked on that project to have something hopefully for the 2020-2021 school year, that’s for child care, head start, and hopefully at some point our schools in our jurisdiction,” Whitlow said.

Whitlow said by November 2020 the language program was configuring ways to work with zoom and lesson planning in addition to the curriculum project.

“I had asked my directors and coordinators for all our programs what the pandemic highlighted, it was that our social media presence is near to none, we didn’t think it was valuable because we could see people, we would have community events and classes so these would bring people in, however now that we didn’t have access to people, how are we going to respond and engage with them online,” Whitlow said.

Whitlow said the language program has taken on the challenge of making their presence known through social media outlets, such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to engage with the public. In witnessing the program adapt to the pandemic, Whitlow said she’s proud of their effort and hard work.

“I just hope to see more people engage and hopefully they see that it’s more accessible now to them … right now we’re only focusing on community classes, so hopefully in the future we’ll be consistent in child care, in head start, and in our school districts, and those classes can be offered as world language credits in the near future,” Whitlow said.

With efforts gaining momentum in striving to preserve Indigenous languages, New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland introduced the U.S. House of Representatives companion bill to Senator Brian Schatz’s the Native American Language Resource Center Act, a bill that would create a designated resource center for the protection and stability of Native American language education. The introduction of the bill comes in light of the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Native American Languages Act, which promoted the right of Native American students to be taught their native languages, opposing previous practices of eradicating Native American culture and language.

In a letter written to President Joseph Biden, Sen. Schatz stated, “establishing a Native American Language Resource Center would provide Native American language immersion schools and programs with much needed coordinated, experienced support and critical knowledge of best practices. The creation of the center will not only sustain and rejuvenate tribal languages, cultures, and traditions rooted in those languages, but also facilitate improved educational and social outcomes for native children and their families.”

Each week the Language Program conducts Arapaho virtual language classes on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. central time, and Cheyenne virtual language classes on Thursdays at 6 p.m. central time. Weekly registrations for the classes open on Mondays and closes at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

To register for either class visit the Language Program’s Facebook page facebook.com/calanguage.


The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune can be reached at:

Public Information Office
700 North Black Kettle Blvd.
Concho, OK 73022
P.O. Box 38
405-422-7608 | 405-422-7446

Editor in Chief Rosemary Stephens can be reached at rmstephens@c-a-tribes.org

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