Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Taking pictures to make the words last longer November 24, 2008 by Carol Schmidt • Published 11/24/08

The Northern Arapaho have 15 years to save their language. An MSU student is helping in the race against time

Teresa Cohn, left, a doctoral student, talks about a photo with Reuben St. Clair, a student at Arapahoe School. Photo by Shasta Grenier.
Teresa Cohn, left, a doctoral student, talks about a photo with Reuben St. Clair, a student at Arapahoe School. Photo by Shasta Grenier.


Mike Redman stands tall before a group of first-grade boys roiling and squirming on the carpet before him.

"Who wants to save their language today?" Redman asks.

Nearly every small boy straightens up and shoots a hand into the air. "I want to save my language," one boy says. A few others nod seriously.

This challenge is something they have heard before. For in the tiny hands of these can't-sit-still, ants-in-their-pants, waiting-for-recess children and their fellow young tribesmen lies the future of the Northern Arapaho language.

Elders in the Northern Arapaho Tribe located on the Wind River Reservation in Central Wyoming fear that the ancient Arapaho language may die out within a generation unless quickly passed on. Currently, only about 300 of the 5,700-member Northern Arapaho tribe, most of them age 60 or older, are fluent Arapaho speakers. In fact, Redman and his wife, Iva, who are the two full-time cultural resource teachers at the Arapahoe School, say they aren't fluent speakers, even though both were raised in homes heavily steeped in traditional Arapaho values.

"We came through the system at a time when the traditional language wasn't emphasized," says Iva Redman, who taught middle-school math before she transferred to the culture center, which serves kindergarteners through eighth-graders in the Fremont County school system. Her husband Mike previously was a special education teacher at the school.

"No fluent speakers have been produced in 30 years. The board recognized that they had to do something different if they wanted to save the language."

What the tribe did was to restructure the culture program so that it focused almost entirely on language revitalization. Each of the school's 280 students, grades kindergarten through eight, attend daily cultural resource classes in language and traditions. Eventually, the Redmans and the school board would like to teach all subjects in Arapaho, including math and science. But for now, they are hoping students retain 1,000 words and phrases within two years.

The Redmans bring tribal elders fluent in the language to assist them with all curricula. Each day as the teachers drill the students in Arapaho, one of their best tools is a large collection of photographs that are part of a Kids with Cameras program brought to the school by Teresa Cohn, a doctoral student at Montana State University.

Cohn isn't a language specialist. In fact, she is a writer, scientist and teacher specializing in water systems and the geography of place. Once a month she travels to Wyoming Indian Elementary School, also located on the Wind River Reservation. There Cohn teaches science to fourth-graders through a natural sciences education program affiliated with MSU's Big Sky Institute, the National Science Foundation and the Center for Learning and Teaching in the West. She heard about the Arapahoe School language program and worked to adapt a Kids with Cameras project used in many places throughout the globe to the needs of the school.

Once a year, Cohn and Shasta Grenier, a freelance photographer based in Bozeman, bring boxes of disposable cameras to the school and distribute one to every first- and sixth-grader. Grenier gives a short lesson in photography --especially short for the first-graders -- and the students are instructed to bring back their cameras the next day with photos of objects familiar to them.

Cohn and Grenier collect the cameras, develop the film overnight in nearby Lander, and print two sets of photos --one for the student and one for the school. The images, all printed in black and white, range from chickens and kids playing basketball, to family members and pets.

The photos are frequently haunting, sometimes funny and often powerful as they reflect the worldview of life on the reservation.

The images are as practical as they are beautiful. Many of the photos are enlarged and used as flashcards in the language lessons. Some of the photos are also made into puzzles and dictionary booklets. The students are enormously proud of their photographs, giving them an ownership in repetitive language drills that could otherwise be routine.

Cohn also organized some of the photos in a traveling exhibit. The first year exhibit was displayed at the Teton County Public Library in Jackson Hole. It was so popular that the library asked for an encore display, which opened at the library this fall.

Cohn finds small grants to keep the program running and she and Grenier largely donate their time to the project. For Cohn, it is a labor of love.

"The gravity of the tribe's situation recently hit me," Cohn said. "Fifteen years is really all they have got (to save their language)."

The importance and urgency of the school's work is not lost on the Redmans. Iva adds that the language program's impact spreads beyond the children in the school.

"Many of our students have parents who don't speak Arapaho so we're also teaching parents to speak by teaching their children," Iva said.

And what happens if their efforts fail?

"Our language will probably become extinct," Iva Redman says simply." It won't be a living language. Right now, the language only lives with the elders."

Redman explains that if a language dies, its people lose identity, stories, history and purpose.

She said the Arapaho children would lose the ability to know what it means to be Arapaho, identifying with the distorted image of Indians on television and learning their history from an outside view.

"Our language holds those key pieces that makes us strong as a tribe," Redman says. "Who we are as Arapaho."

See the Web exclusive, Wind River Slideshow and Video.