Inside an office building in Great Falls, words from long ago are being heard again: “Ikwe.” “Inini.” “Gaawiin.” “Omaa.”
The office is the headquarters of the Montana Little Shell Tribe, and words are from the Ojibwe language, also known as Chippewa.
They’re spoken by Duncan Standing Rock Sr. and Frieda Mascarenas, two of the increasingly few Montanans who speak the language.
Standing Rock and Mascarenas are now lending their voices to a project intended to spread that knowledge to a new generation.
The Little Shell Tribe has started a program to help revitalize their ancestral languages. Since it started three years ago, it’s moved from simply collecting information about the languages to putting together lesson plans for children in Head Start programs.
All of Montana’s tribes are working to preserve their culture, but it’s especially challenging for the Little Shell. Unlike the others, they don’t have their own schools to help pass down traditions. They don’t have a reservation – or even a concentrated population. The roughly 6,000 enrolled members are spread all over the state and across the country.
The Little Shell Tribe has a complex history. The tribe traces its heritage to Chippewa speakers from the Great Lakes region who moved west centuries ago.
In the Great Plains, they formed alliances with the Cree and Assiniboine, and they interacted with early European traders. Leaders say the tribe’s culture and languages today show influences from all those cultures.
Historically, the Little Shell spoke Chippewa, Cree, and a mixture of French and native languages called Michif. Tribal leaders hope to revitalize all three, but they decided to focus on Chippewa first.
A survey of Little Shell members found almost none spoke Chippewa, so language program director Gerald Gray Sr. recruited speakers from outside the tribe. Initially, he hoped to hire one to come to work directly with kids at Head Start, but no one was available.
“People in their 80s don’t want to come and teach school, especially dealing with three, four or five-year-olds,” Gray said.
Instead, the language team decided to film native speakers, then use those recordings in the classroom.
Standing Rock is one of the Chippewa speakers Gray brought in. He’s a member of the Chippewa Cree tribe of the Rocky Boy Reservation, but says he has many relatives among the Little Shell. He learned the language from his grandfather more than 70 years ago.
“The foundations of who we are is what he was trying to teach you,” said Standing Rock.
He says this is a crucial time for those who speak native languages to pass them on: “There’s still quite a few out there, but they’re like us; they’re gradually drifting away, like the clouds."
Gray says he asked Standing Rock how he had been able to maintain the language for so long without many people to talk to. Standing Rock replied that he went home and spoke to himself in the mirror.
Standing Rock calls Gray his “hero” for his work on the Little Shell’s language program.
“I’m proud of them, to try to continue, to continue fostering of who they are, and that’s the reason why I’m here,” he said.
The process of recording speakers takes several days. They’re given English words and phrases, then asked to read them back in Chippewa.
Dr. Lanny Real Bird, a native of Crow Agency, has worked for 20 years helping tribes preserve their languages. He helped the Little Shell come up with the list of key phrases to record.
“To teach these conversational phrases to the teachers, as well as the responses, so that some of the children will not only know what a command might be, but they would also know how to respond effectively,” said Real Bird.
OPEN TO ALL
Gray brought his plans for Little Shell language lessons to administrators with Opportunities, Inc., which operates Head Start programs in Great Falls and around north-central Montana. He says they were interested, but had one question for him: Would the lessons be limited to Little Shell children?
Gray said no: “Any child, no matter what tribe, no matter what ethnicity or cultural background they come from, they’re more than welcome to be a part of the program." In September, Opportunities, Inc. introduced Chippewa language lessons. So far, more than 400 children, native and non-native alike, have taken part.
The Little Shell tribe has also started offering language courses for adults at their offices in Great Falls. But because so many members live too far away, leaders are turning to the internet.
They’ve launched a website, SpeakLittleShell.org. Currently the site includes historical information and lists of resources on all three tribal languages. Eventually, they hope to post the lessons and recordings there as well. There are even plans for a possible mobile app.
But funding is a constant challenge. Almost all the money for the Little Shell’s language efforts comes from the state of Montana. The tribe has received $368,000 since lawmakers created a statewide language preservation program in 2013.
“Without the state of Montana, the Little Shell language would be extinct, remain extinct,” said Gray.
Unlike the other tribes in the state, the Little Shell haven’t been recognized by the federal government. That means they don’t have access to federal programs that could provide extra funding. “It’s really been a hardship,” Gray said.
The Little Shell have been fighting for almost 40 years to receive federal recognition. All three members of Montana’s Congressional delegation have sponsored legislation to grant it.
This year, two of those bills cleared committees in the House and Senate. Tribal leaders believe this is the closest they’ve ever come to being recognized.
While the tribe waits for the political process, the members of the language team hope their work will help keep the Little Shell’s culture strong.
“I could see this as a means to solidify their identity,” said Real Bird. “I see it as a means of nation-building, to where they define themself with their own language.”
“It’s really going to help the self-esteem of our people, of our kids,” Gray said.
“By doing what they’re doing here, I believe we’ll survive,” said Standing Rock.