Montana State University

MSU grads preserve a native language, keep tribal philosophies alive

December 4, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Lynette Stein-Chandler is director of the White Clay Immersion School where children learn the White Clay language and culture in addition to subjects they'd normally study in public school. (Photo by Jim Potter).   High-Res Available

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Sean Chandler and Lynette Stein-Chandler didn't grow up speaking the White Clay language, but they're devoted to preserving it on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana.

Both MSU graduates, Lynette is director of the White Clay Immersion School where children learn the White Clay language and culture in addition to subjects they'd normally study in public school. Sean teaches the White Clay language and culture at the school. He's also department head of Native American Studies and director of the Tribal History Project at Fort Belknap College where the immersion school is located.

Preserving a language is very difficult, but important, said MSU President Geoff Gamble who is working on a dictionary for the nearly-lost Wikchamni language. Gamble, who earned his Ph.D. in linguistics, said native languages are often imbedded with information about how people think and how they used to think, how they act and how they feel. Some of the best ways to preserve languages are audio and visual recordings, collecting stories and writing down as much of the language as possible, he said.

The Chandlers said they speak White Clay at home and use White Clay sign language with their young daughters. The couple learned the language largely as adults and developed their abilities by meeting with fluent tribal elders. They're recording those conversations, building a White Clay dictionary, developing interactive CDs and using keyboards with the White Clay alphabet.

Preserving a language that once was banned demonstrates that the White Clay Indians, also known as Gros Ventre, are resilient, Stein-Chandler said. The effort announces that "We held onto our ways, our language, that we are strong and will survive and our language will survive. It's a central part of our identity and way of life."

Sean Chandler said the White Clay language contains tribal philosophies, as well. The word for "chief," for example, doesn't necessarily mean leader, but "generous man."

"That right there tells you what our way of thinking was," Chandler said. "It wasn't the guy who had everything, but the guy who was kind of a benefactor, who looked out for everybody."

Chandler is a White Clay Indian who lived most of his life off the reservation. Stein-Chandler -- daughter of Wayne Stein, professor of Native American Studies at MSU -- is an enrolled White Clay Indian who lived in Bozeman. The couple moved to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in 2001 to join many of their relatives.

The importance of their culture and language became increasingly evident after they had children, Stein-Chandler said. Students who study the White Clay language not only learn an important part of their heritage, but they rank high in test scores because of the discipline it takes to learn a language that's as advanced as White Clay, Stein-Chandler continued.

The White Clay Immersion School -- located in the Fort Belknap College cultural center -- currently has 13 students who range from ages 8 to 11 and grades 4 through 6. They will transfer to other schools after eighth grade.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu