the Cheyenne Language
Richard E. Littlebear
speakers are uneasy about losing our language. They say, “It’s
scary” when asked about it. The loss is scary because most do
not realize we are losing the living essence of our identity as
Cheyennes. We assumed Cheyenne would be here forever. The possibility
of its death has given us a jolt of reality.
If the death of languages were more noticeable, then perhaps there
would be massive efforts to save them. For instance, if language
death was like road kill, we could say, “A lot of complex syllables
are getting run over. Look all those glottal stops rotting by
the roadside. Those silent vowels sure stink when they die.” But
the dying is subtle and complicated.
Our language started dying with our first European contact and
would now be complete if it weren’t for Cheyenne efforts at strengthening
it. We must use every strategy to save our language while contending
Yet, we must also promote English because it gives us physical
sustenance and enables us to work in the present society; whereas
Cheyenne provides us with spiritual sustenance, positively reinforces
our identity, and lets us commune with all that we hold sacred.
Both languages are useful in their unique ways and are equally
important to us.
We Cheyenne have not been blameless in the loss of our language.
Elders have ridiculed and over-corrected and thus rendered mute
those who aspired to speak Cheyenne. Parents have not valued Cheyenne
enough to teach their children and grandchildren. We have belittled
efforts to strengthen the language while not offering to help.
To strengthen our language on our Reservation, this is what we
do: offer oral language classes, copy and implement successful
oral language programs, offer courses in linguistics for those
who want to read and write, offer immersion schools or classes,
and offer a standardized oral language curriculum to all of the
local K-12 schools. We must make tribal language the official
language of the people and reservation by tribal council ordnance
and create a certification process for our own language teachers;
offer a language-speaking group for people to hear the language;
begin a word coinage program, which will bring the language up
to date; sponsor a summer language immersion camp; create and
standardize a writing system. These are stratagems we are using.
Any language, when not used, assumes a momentary, gossamer presence,
and then it disappears. We must use them or lose them. If we don’t
do anything to strengthen them, our languages will silently waft
with butterfly elusiveness on the winds of the world and their
melodic sounds will be lost forever.
It is the charge of this older generation of Cheyenne speakers
to do everything to strengthen it. It sounds trite, but it will
only die once.
E. Littlebear is Vice President for Cultural Studies at Dull Knife
Memorial College in Lame Deer, Montana #
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