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Crow Immersion Camp Hopes To Revive A Threatened Native American Language


Many Native American languages have only a few speakers left. But there's been a push to help keep the Crow language alive. Those efforts are now beginning to pay off. It's no longer just the language of the tribe's elders. Younger and younger learners are embracing Crow along with their heritage. For this story, Amy Martin reports from Big Horn County, Mont.

AMY MARTIN, BYLINE: When Tylis Bad Bear was growing up, speaking Crow wasn't cool. Even though his peers made fun of him for speaking their native language, he was determined.

TYLIS BEAR: What really pushed me to want to learn it was that, you know, my grandpa always told me that culture and language is something that nobody can take away from you.

MARTIN: Now Bad Bear is one of the youngest fluent speakers on the Crow reservation in southeast Montana, where he grew up. And he's teaching others the fundamentals of the language at the Crow Summer Institute.

BAD BEAR: (Speaking Crow).

UNIDENTIFIED #1: (Speaking Crow).

BAD BEAR: (Speaking Crow).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Crow).

JOHN BOYLE: We're really lucky to have people like Tylis, who's in his early 20s.

MARTIN: John Boyle is with The Language Conservancy, a national organization that wants to preserve indigenous languages. He says young speakers like Bad Bear are crucial.

BOYLE: And there are a number of other people like that who are fluent speakers who are into the schools now, speaking, working with children.

MARTIN: Boyle says Navajo has the highest number of fluent speakers at about 150,000. In contrast, there are only about 1,500 Crow speakers, but that still puts Crow among the most spoken native languages in the country.

BOYLE: Whereas a lot of other Native American languages are down to having one, two or maybe 10 speakers. So Crow's in a good position. But we really need to work hard to bring it back so the kids are speaking it, feel proud about speaking it again.

MARTIN: To that end, The Language Conservancy helped organize a screening of "The Berenstain Bears" in the Lakota language this summer. They've also sponsored classes focusing on Mandan and Hidatsa. Still, some raise the concerns that students should be focusing on a language spoken by millions of people all over the world rather than a small, isolated language like Crow. That line of thinking misses the point, says Janine Pease. She's a professor at Little Big Horn College on the reservation.

JANINE PEASE: To know who you are is really, really critical.

MARTIN: Pease says the goal is teaching resilience. And native languages are a part of that. The idea is to root students in their cultures. That, she says, will bolster them against discrimination, poverty and violence. In other words, Pease says learning Crow isn't just about keeping a language alive, it's about keeping people alive.

PEASE: When they have that element - the tradition and the culture and the language as a part of their education - they're very strong human beings. And we need that to face the future.

BAD BEAR: If it wasn't for the Crow language, I wouldn't be here at this table right now.

MARTIN: Tylis Bad Bear says he has peers who are caught up in drugs and alcohol.

BAD BEAR: And some of them aren't even here. One of them was a little brother of mine. He was drinking and driving and wrecked.

MARTIN: He says that tragedy has only increased his commitment to teaching Crow.

BAD BEAR: It pushes me more to want my people to know the culture and know their language, just all in hopes that someday we could have that stability and self-sufficiency and be prosperous.

MARTIN: Bad Bear is talking about more than material prosperity.

BAD BEAR: Just being happy, living a good life on this earth and just enjoying life, celebrating life every day.

MARTIN: In other words, the Crow dream, the Native American dream, is the American dream. For NPR News, I'm Amy Martin in Crow Agency, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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