When Marlin Spoonhunter returned to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming after decades working as an educator in Montana, he realized that something crucial, something elemental to his Northern Arapaho identity, had escaped him — the language.
“When I’d hear older people talking, I didn’t know what they were saying,” says Spoonhunter, now president of the Wind River Tribal College in Ethete. “I wanted to know.”
For generations, the tribe has been leaning into cultural headwinds to preserve a language on the brink of extinction. As English gained dominance in daily discourse, fluent Arapaho speakers dwindled to what’s now estimated to be perhaps a few dozen — most of those in their 70s — among the slightly more than 10,000 registered tribal members in Wyoming.
But faced with losing one of its defining elements, a living institution that extends beyond words to a unique way of looking at the world, the tribe has turned to a variety of resources — including a University of Colorado Boulder linguistics professor — with increased urgency to reverse the trend.
It has embraced websites, phone apps and video tutorials along with classroom immersion and personal mentoring to renew a native tongue essential to its culture, religion and worldview.
“It’s a tribal belief that it’s a gift from the Creator, and without it we cannot exist in the manner that he intended,” says William C’Hair, chairman of the Arapaho Language and Cultural Commission. “If you don’t understand the language it’s very difficult to practice our cultural ways, our values, our world views, our political conscience. All derives from the language.”
That language began to disappear from everyday life, C’Hair explains, as it was suppressed by the government and missionary schools established on the reservation. English became the dominant language, especially in the home — a shift that became even more pronounced as television and technology reinforced its omnipresence.
For years, efforts to preserve the Arapaho language in local classrooms struggled against the lack of sufficient instructional time. Upon his return to the reservation, Spoonhunter ultimately turned to his older brother for the kind of language immersion that has made him, at 60, still only “semi-fluent.”
“Everybody says they’re Arapaho, but to be part of the tribe it’s like some elders say: If you’re Arapaho, you should speak the language,” he says. “I took it upon myself to start learning. Now I use it when I teach my classes, when I go to ceremonies, when I address a crowd. I try to use it around my grandchildren at home.”
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One key to the language’s revival arrived about 17 years ago from an unexpected source.
Andrew Cowell was early into his career in linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder when he felt drawn to the Arapaho language for two reasons.
The Arapaho people were native to the Boulder area when the first white settlers arrived, and names of nearby places still reflect the Arapaho terms. It seemed a natural line of study.
But he also found the language interesting from a purely linguistic standpoint in terms of its structure and how its descriptive nature framed the world in a unique way. The word for Boulder translates to Arapaho as “where it is steep” — an apparent reference to the Flatirons. The South Platte translates as “tallow river,” a reference to the residue of buffalo processing that once happened on its banks.
Cowell arranged a trip to the Wind River reservation in search of a potential working relationship, but figuring it might be a one-time excursion. He researched the language ahead of time to prepare for an encounter with people he knew were “fairly suspicious” about researchers and their agendas.
Cowell picked up enough vocabulary to struggle through some basic phrases when he arrived in Wyoming in 2000. He understood nothing of his hosts’ replies. But he picked up several more words during his stay and, upon his return to Boulder, wrote a thank-you note to the head of the tribe’s language and culture commission — in Arapaho.
His efforts, error-riddled as they were, impressed tribal leaders, and a partnership was born. Cowell launched a general interest educational outreach website aimed at introducing elementary school students to the Arapaho tribe and its language.
“They were seeing the same animals, but seeing different features and naming them in those ways,” he says. “Some of the website is an effort to share that vocabulary. You’re not just learning a word, but a new way to look at that animal, or Longs Peak or Pikes Peak. That’s something we can all appreciate, even if we’re not all going to be speaking Arapaho.”
Eventually, the early effort launched in 2003 expanded into the Arapaho Language Project that today more directly addresses the language for an audience of all ages. Most recently, with the help of doctoral candidate Irina Wagner, Cowell launched an online dictionary that includes an English-Arapaho translator as well as links to more than 80,000 lines of Arapaho narratives to illustrate how a given word can be used in a sentence.
“I think it has helped immensely,” Spoonhunter says. “I have one of the dictionaries downloaded on my phone. If I don’t know a word, I look it up. His goal is to preserve and revitalize the language. He has preserved it very well.”
Cowell’s next goal is to produce a full-fledged print dictionary that allows translation between English and Arapaho. The biggest challenge is the part that will help English speakers translate words into their tribal language.
“It’s really complicated, because the languages don’t match up structurally,” Cowell says. “So very often if you look at one English word, you’re going to get 10 Arapaho words, or vice versa.”
For instance, he says, in English we might use the word “walk.” The Arapaho language has no such verb. Instead, it has words that describe variations on walking: walk down, walk up, walk around, come to a stop while walking, start walking.
“You see the problem,” Cowell adds. “The user looks up ‘walk’ and we say there’s no equivalent, but here are 47 choices depending on what else you want to say in the sentence.”
The 26 characters of the English alphabet were distilled to 16 — including the number 3, which is pronounced like the English “th” in the words three or the. Where once the language was updated in real time with new word entries, the 1960s saw those efforts subside as English held sway.
Cowell helped reignite the effort to catch up.
With emerging technology came the need to translate new words into Arapaho, a task undertaken by gatherings of sometimes dozens of native speakers. The Arapaho word for Facebook translates literally as “gossip”; the word for Twitter as “little gossip.”
“We come together, and speakers think of a way to describe it,” C’Hair says of the process. “We arrive at a solution among all of us, then say that’s what it’s going to be, and the people learn it.”
Cowell notes that the Arapaho have an entire genre of stories that address technology in a humorous way, all concluding with “believe it or don’t believe it, it’s up to you.” For instance, when a wire transfer of money fails to go through, the story’s protagonists follow the telegraph line to a spot where it has broken, revealing a pile of money on the ground beneath it.
That same sense of poking fun extends to individual words. The Arapaho word for rice, for example, translates as “maggot.”
“Which is exactly what it looks like, if you think about it,” Cowell says. “They’re making fun of the white world in a way that fights back against this notion that the normal way is the white way and the Arapaho way is the strange way. The white world looks pretty strange from an Arapaho perspective.”
William C’Hair calls Cowell’s work “the most complete, accurate and extensive website that’s been put up.” What the Arapaho must add to the process, he says, is attitude.
“It’s most important to overcome the negative attitude from where we are living — everything in all English,” he says. “The English language and culture is prevalent, and that overshadows our life ways.”
While the Arapaho Language Project spearheaded by CU offers extensive tools for learning and understanding the language, the tribe has pursued other solutions as well.
A few days each week, C’Hair teaches the language via teleconference to Southern Arapaho members on a reservation in Oklahoma, where about 13,000 members also have only a few dozen fluent speakers.
Last fall, one school district on the Wind River reservation launched a free app — titled simply Arapaho — for smart phones and iPads. Over about 18 months, tribal elders consulted with a Las Vegas-based company to create a base of more than 650 key words and phrases divided into categories, including greetings, food and drink, school-related terms and others.
The app also contains a cultural component and literally has preserved the voices of the elders, who were recorded pronouncing those words and phrases and could be heard simply by tapping the screen. The school district also purchased iPads for each of its students so they can practice outside of class.
“Students are learning from it,” says Teresa HisChase, program coordinator for the district’s 21st Century Community Learning Center. “I hear success stories from parents who are using it in their homes, and the kids are starting to speak it without prompts. One family was sitting in a local restaurant, and their boy started ordering food in Arapaho, and the parents had to translate to the waitress.”
At an immersion school for kids ages 3 to 5 in the district, younger students get a head start toward fluency.
Instructor Mary Headley hands out napkins and eating utensils one day as the kids repeat the Arapaho word for each before enjoying breakfast. Later, as one student holds an American flag, others stand with hands over their hearts singing a World War II-era “flag song” followed by the Pledge of Allegiance — both in Arapaho.
“Usually, once we walk into this door, all English language is left outside that door,” Headley says. “… They know that they are a part of the United States of America, yet they know they are Arapaho also.”
Some adult learners like HisChase, in her early 40s, have found that committing to master-apprentice immersion with an older friend or relative offers the best chance at revitalizing the language. She found that while she could grasp reading and writing fairly well, she couldn’t understand the elders in conversation.
She paired up with a mentor for four months, four hours a day, five days a week. They did nothing but speak Arapaho. The first month she felt confused. The second she began to understand what he was saying. By the third month, she began to respond correctly and at the end of four months she was becoming more comfortable speaking the language — and feeling like an important part of her identity had been restored.
“Our entire cultural repository is embedded in our language,” HisChase says. “One elder says, ‘All Arapaho people see the world in black and white; with the Arapaho language, they see it in full color.’ ”