Monday, February 24, 2020


In 1961 when I came to Browning to teach English, I had no idea what I was doing.  Neither did anyone else.  We just blundered along, mostly dependent on textbooks meant for some other place.  One day I saw a high school senior in front of the school with a brush cut and heavy pair of IHS glasses.  It was Darrell Kipp.  (DRK)  He was discouraging a bully.  (I know who that was but I won't tell you.) We were told by the admin that if any student called us "Napi yaki" we were to send them to the office.  In those days teachers used force.

New story.  I had become a side-rider with Bob Scriver who was born on the rez in 1914.  He spoke "storekeep" Blckft because his dad came in 1903 and still operated the Browning Mercantile.  B used the Blkft lang as though it were French, a word or phrase here and there.  (His second wife was French Canadian.)  I picked up words.  One day we were in Cardston and I went to use the bathroom at a service station.  When I came out, there was a Blft grandma with a half-dozen little boys, all jittering because they needed to pee.  She thought I was slow and called me "Napi yaki."  I laughed.  I'd be angry and impatient in the same situation.  Some would not be civilized enough to use a bathroom but just teach the little boys to pee in a bush.

Another new story.  B. had the dream about becoming a Bundle Keeper.  The old people told him that was what it was.  He spent thousands for the object, the ceremony, and belonging to this group of people born in the 19th century.  We had to learn a prayer.  This was it.  More less.  I used it sometimes which made speakers do a doubletake.

Ki yo! Neena!  Na too see!
Spumokit.  Keemokit.
Ki mis nyok so kwan.
yi yee!

Jack Holterman was rich, gay, and very well-educated.  While waiting to inherit his money, he taught in the many little one-room schoolhouses on the rez.  He protected and adopted indigenous children.  During B's second marriage, he bought land at St. Mary's next to the Scrivers and began building a stone cabin.  While building, he and his partner at the time lived in B's cabin.  This was partly to prevent B's second wife from hiding out there.  B's women were always hiding out.  When I knew Holterman, who was then living in West Glacier in retirement, he was writing history of the area and had prepared materials for teaching Blkft.  One of his books, "Place Names of Glacier/Waterton National Parks," was later augmented as "Let the Mountains Sing."  The names were in indigenous languages. He worked from the Flathead side and rarely came to the Blkft rez anymore, but DRK always stopped by when he crossed the Rockies.

I have a whole box of binders containing impeccably typed letters from DRK during the years he was trying to understand how to start language revitalization.  He and DSS were employed to do this by the local school system, but it was always blocked, mysteriously.  Finally he saw that the school didn't want this to happen.  But he and DSS had academic creds as well as local roots.  DRK had a Harvard degree, worked in Canada, made connections.  He was able to invent the Piegan Institute with help from Hawaiians, New Zealanders, and private foundations.  His rule was never to take federal money and never to let the state get involved.  Cuts Wood School was run as a charter school for elementary kids and they DID learn to speak Blkft.

Earlier, Marvin Weatherwax's mother, Elizabeth Lewis, (I may have the name wrong) collaborated with Terry Sherburne who was white from a family even earlier than the Scrivers.  Weatherwax people are exceptionally bright and focused.  After years at BCC, Marvin Senior now teaches for this program linked above that comes from the Montana Historical Society.  The vid at that site where he describes a beginning program for basics is cleverly mocked in a vid of someone speaking Blkft eloquently while the print captions list the colors, numbers, days of the week.  Baby steps.  But it taught people that they could say the words without dissolving or turning green or being beaten by administrators.

The University of Lethbridge has made itself into a center of Blkft knowledge.   Two books come from there.  "Blackfoot Grammar" . D. G. Frantz (1991) ·"Toward a Generative Grammar of Blackfoot" (with particular attention to selected stem formation processes) . D. G. Frantz (1970) ·I've had these books for years and sometimes can even figure out what Blkft words mean by using them.  The college level knowledge based on linguistics, morphology, syntax is difficult to learn.

"Some general aspects of Blackfoot Morphology" . C. C. Uhlenbeck (1914) · Verhandelingen van het Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen: Afdeeling Letterkunde: Reeks 2 · Vol. 14 · Amsterdam: Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen.  This work was brought back to life in translation by Mary Eggermont-Molenar and entitled "Montana 1911", the year Uhlenbeck was on the rez.  He transcribed many oral stories from speakers but I don't know where one would find them to read.   
This resource lists "Blackfoot for Beginners". E. Tailfeathers (1993) · Edmonton: Alberta Department for Education.  Maybe Terrill Tailfeathers, who posts on Twitter, has some comment.  There are other books on this list that I never knew about until just now.

Relearning oral languages and integrating them into today's lives is a sputtering fire.  Various attempts and versions are scattered embers, partly because of barriers between nations (you CANNOT learn Blkft without Canadians), because of competition between persons who constantly dump the past in case it undermines them, and because of economics.  White people (academics and philanthropists) like to make themselves look good by claiming special affinity to tribes.  Montana academic entities do not help, not even the several university programs.

I don't speak Blackft.  I have a long history here.  Therefore, my prejudice as well as my philosophy is that language is cultural and cultures are ecological.  Therefore, to really learn a language, one must first learn the ecology, build a relationship with the land.  In the Sixties no one we asked even knew the word for "buffalo" or bison.  Today a lot of people own them on the rez and companies and programs use the word iinii in their names.  But I admit I'm a napi-yaki.

No comments: