A bottle rocket launched in my mind the night I first thought of going to learn Arapaho by living with an elder on the Wind River Reservation in central western Wyoming. I lay there thinking about how it would be to visit the old heart of our continent, experiencing a different side of the culture I saw splashed around the gift shops in Manitou Springs, Colo., where I grew up wandering the same mountains the Arapaho once inhabited. It struck me suddenly that I could actually go live on the reservation with support from my doctoral work at CU’s Center for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the West (CSILW).
It made such sense: in order to sufficiently document the language I must learn to be respectful in Native America just as much as I need to learn the language. Arapaho, which flows with sounds of wind and water, is teetering at the brink of the forgotten, deemed “critically endangered” by the United Nation’s Atlas of Endangered Languages. Fewer than 200 speakers remain and not one child speaks it fluently.
With this mellifluous and critically endangered language right in our backyards, some homestay program must place learners with the few fluent elders, right? Wrong. Shockingly, no organization facilitates homestays to learn Native American languages, so I pioneered my own. I asked representatives of the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders if I could live with an elder in exchange for basic eldercare (I have no medical training).
Learning Arapaho for the reservation
Four months later in August of 2008, my adventure on Wind River Reservation began. For several weeks that August I spent every waking moment learning Arapaho and experiencing the amazing world of Native America. Since then I have returned many times to stay with my family and continue CSILW’s documentation research for the archives at the University of London’s School for Oriental and Asian Studies.
The elder who accepted me rewrote my understanding of the world, particularly of my role in it, beginning with the month-long homestay and continuing today. When I met Crawford White (Eagle), one of the Four Old Men who share the highest tier of ceremonial leadership for Northern and Southern Arapaho Nations, he was lying on scraps of carpet outside his sweat lodge, which looked like an igloo covered with old blankets and tarps.
He was smoking in the cool dusk, taking a break amid moist heat and prayer. He told me to speak, reminded me the language is sacred, looked me straight in the eye ― his way, in a sense, of asserting dominance over me ― and decided with a smile that he would help me. He was busy with matters of the tribe, but I could come listen to the Council of Elders and was welcome in his home with his children.
Time on Wind River flies like the heeyei, the hawk – distant, a thought that comes and passes in the blink of an eye. My expectations were entirely unlike the experience that followed. The openheartedness with which I was invited into Crawford’s family upended the first of my misconceptions – that an outsider remains an outsider. I soon learned that the truest, oldest American values may have been born in Native America ― the twin virtues of spirituality and familial cohesion.
Mother Theresa once said America was the most impoverished nation she had visited, despite its affluence, because of our familial division and spiritual isolation. But I feel Native America defies that description entirely. The love there convinced me beyond doubt that there is no real poverty when we fight for each other more passionately than we fight for ourselves.
The force of that love held me up when my mother died, five years after she contracted West Nile Virus during Boulder’s 2003 epidemic. Her passing unseamed my mind with a searing unlike anything I could have imagined, but the support I felt from the reservation imparted an unwavering strength, an active concern and kindness that allowed me to survive that darkest of times. My Arapaho family even threw a healing ceremony for me the way they do for each other, showing the depth of their caring by cooking and spending hours in preparation and prayer to help me shoulder the stress of sadness.
Partly because healing ceremonies are led in Arapaho, language revitalization is critical for the traditional methods of keeping depression and ill-health at bay. Elders have told me that the loss of the language will result in the loss of the Arapaho spirit from the face of the earth.
Linguistically, English and Arapaho also highlight very different aspects of a concept, so spirituality doesn’t translate clearly at all. For instance, both nii’oo’ and hii3eti’ translate as “it is good,” but nii’oo’ might describe a good car while hii3eti’ describes something morally uplifting, as in “it is good that we are together.”
Identity as language
Because identity is embedded in language, elders say learning to speak strengthens the self-respect of children and adults alike, and encourages them to value and adhere to traditionally healthy ways of living. People make vows to live respectfully because ceremonies require it; I heard a young man describe holding his anger in check when another man provoked him because he had vowed to behave kindly as a member of a ceremonial group. People break addictions and fast to honor the Creator, so empowering young people to understand Arapaho is one way Elders strive to protect children. I watched grandparents’ eyes shine when little ones at the new Arapaho Immersion School repeated their words ― language revitalization stimulates loving intergenerational interaction, contributing to familial cohesion. When we value our ancestors, we value ourselves, and self-respect is the strongest protection against depression and the resulting drug abuse and suicide that can devastate reservation life.
In addition to early morning Arapaho lessons at Crawford’s bedside, I was included in many fascinating activities. I discovered that sweat lodge ceremonies are really prayer meetings in pitch blackness. The total effect is one of vulnerability, of opening. When I took a break between rounds, the prairie breeze and the soft whispering of grasses lulled me into a deep peace, very like strong meditation. I learned to cut corn husks into “papers” for tobacco-filled prayer cigarettes. I picked chokecherries from bushes on the roadside for use in traditional gravy. And I was taught to identify the smooth grandfather stones suitable for ceremonial use. Crawford’s youngest children, young teenagers and twins Bailey and Marcus, took me to a rock water slide that ends in a waterfall hidden up a canyon where the tribe has played for generations.
I learned and am continuing to learn cultural norms but this problem is amplified by the deceiving surface-level similarity between mainstream culture and reservation life. Families watch television together, teenagers wear baggy pants with boxers showing, Crawford even texts the many young people who love him – but underlying differences are very powerful, and the pulse of life on the reservation has a distinctly exotic feel that reminds me of my undergraduate student exchange to Ghana.
Women are extremely modest, often covering their bodies from the neck to the toes in the steaming heat of a sweat lodge. Behaviors that typically hold no sexual connotation in mainstream American culture, such as sprawling on a couch or lying on the floor watching television, are interpreted as being directly suggestive; my ignorance of those subtleties compounded the misunderstandings I had with other women.
The importance of nonverbal communication
Other offenses are equally hard to avoid, since they involve unconscious behaviors. Eye contact is seen as a sign of respect in popular American culture (as shown by the phrase “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”) but it is understood by the Arapaho as it is understood in nature: a sign of conflict, a threat, a stab at dominance. Conversations are much slower because interrupting is so disrespectful that the listener withholds their response an extra few seconds to be sure the speaker is really finished.
Nonverbal communication always means more than words, and as a linguist I should have anticipated that behavior and body language could send very different messages than I intended. Despite the breathtaking complexity of the Arapaho language, unspoken Arapaho proved the hardest to learn, and I am deeply grateful to those who had the patience to teach me and forgive my missteps.
Crawford also taught me powerful lessons of forgiveness and hope, primarily by example. Despite the way his people have been treated by the United States government, he is a VietNam veteran with three purple hearts who has a quilt of American flags hanging in his bedroom. He often told me wonooyoo’uusi’, wonooyoo’uunetiit – it is a new day; it is a new life.
That “life is new” belief inspired me to try for another lifelong dream, so I interned with Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program. From September to December 2009 I worked at their headquarters where I helped design Navajo language software, which was exhilarating. My coworkers taught me their fields of expertise with startling eagerness; a high-ranking journalist gave me one-on-one writing lessons, the lead photographer spent lunch hours explaining aperture and shutter speed and media developers showed me how to edit video and sound recordings. The momentum of the experience led to an even bigger success – I secured an internship with the United Nations in its Endangered Language Programme. I have had to postpone acceptance for financial reasons, but I hope to work with the Brazilian office doing Amazonian fieldwork before completing my doctorate.
If you would like to participate in linguistic philanthropy, CU’s Center for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the West can help point you in the right direction. It certainly led me there. Go here for an article in Indian Country News about the work of the center.
Finn Thye (Psych’01, MLing’09) is pursuing a joint doctorate in linguistics and cognitive science at CU-Boulder. This summer she is searching for speakers of indigenous Latin American languages in the Denver area so CU’s new crop of field linguists can gain practical experience in documentation. She hopes to enrich the public esteem of indigenous heritage as a means of promoting the self-valuation of disenfranchised communities.