HOW TO START AN IMMERSION SCHOOL, Part three

In 1987 in spite of the charter school movement and academic theory about recovering the indigenous languages of Montana, the tribal people were wary. Too many redemption theories had gone past, being “old-timey” was stigmatized as anti-Christian and backwards (“blanket ass Indians”), and alcoholism was killing in a way that seemed unstoppable.

The first step was gathering a Blackfeet-identifying group who were open-minded and even progressive. Then there was discussion on what sort of housing the school should have. The idea of being a wing of the public school died early. Then the tension was between the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouses scattered through the rez, or something bigger where everyone was together — no need for buses. At first the one-room school house was the favorite, partly because of nostalgia for the barely remembered old days.

The lot for building was on Moccasin Flats but a little ways from the houses. The small deciding group included Bill Grant, an architect who had a business in East Glacier. He was married to a DesRosier, one of the early prominent families which was white but married into the tribe. The family originator was a pharmacist who ran a drug store in Browning. A red-head, he was enlightened and produced an achieving family. On Midsummer’s Day as the sun came up, this visionary group stood on their site shoulder to shoulder in a line. This was to be the location of the window wall of the school house, in a salute to the sun.

Darrell’s concern was to draw in the products of academia. Study after study had been done by grad students and professors of various kinds, but no one in Browning ever had a chance to read them because no copies were ever left behind. So there was a room for the repository of studies of Blackfeet that had never been collected on the rez before. A kitchen was necessary, of course. There was no playground so the kids walked together to a park. Observers remarked that Darrell should have provided a bus. In rural locations a favorite strategy is to regard something innovative and resourceful so as to announce what’s wrong with it.

But there were advantages the group had:

An excellent and well-respected Blackfeet speaker, Ed Little Plume, was the lead teacher. This would eliminate arguments about “you’re not saying it right.”

Help and support came from the Pacific indigenous people, esp. Australian, Maori and Hawaiian groups who had been organizing culture and language preservation for several years.

Jack Holterman, a white man who had learned the language and produced a curriculum as well as a couple of books that identified the original indigenous names of places through the reservation and Glacier Park. For years he taught in the original one-room school houses that had been ranch based through the reservation, so he knew the people and their ways of learning.

A particular way of learning a new language had developed, called “Total Physical Response.” When a baby learns its face and body parts, we say, “This is your nose!” and we touch the baby’s nose. Same with toes and so on. When one learns Blackfeet, one says the Blackfeet word and pats one’s head. It’s almost like sign-talk. It is experimentally established that combining a physical gesture with actual contact, the word is attached in the mind. In fact, an fMRI can see this happening.

So Darrell greeted people like me by saying, “Welcome, friend. Come in and sit down” in Blackfeet and in those days I could say the words. In fact, I attended a workshop led by Ed Little Plume and have a certificate for passing the study. This is more than learning one’s numbers or colors, but it is nothing like the extensive language study at the University of Lethbridge which is a center of study partly because of missionary translation of the Bible. That’s where Donald G. Franz and Norma Jean Russell developed the two vital dictionaries: “Blackfoot Dictionary of Stems, Roots and Affixes” and.

As a boy Bob Scriver used shopkeeper’s words from working at the Browning Merc, the family store. When someone “Indian” came in, he said, “Chenustepi, Chiki?” I picked up his vocabulary plus a few naughty words. But Darrell taught me that what Bob said was patronizing, the equivalent of “what do you want, boy?” I don’t know whether Bob realized that. Or whether he would have seen anything wrong with it. When a Blackfeet is teaching his own language, the implications are different, but this is an important dimension of speaking.

Imitah is dog. Dogs are respected. But “dogface” (imituski) is an insult. Once in Cardston on a hot summer day, I was slow coming out of a gas station rest room. Waiting at the door were a grandmother with a half-dozen little boys clutching their crotches and jigging. She growled at me, “Imituski!” I could hardly blame her.

The immersion kids, primary school age, heard prayer at important events from people like Chairman Earl Old Person and learned to pray in Blackfeet themselves. When old people were present who didn’t expect it, their old creased faces were astonished and their tears came. The language was access to the sacred and meaningful.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing and the experienced immersion schools had advice. The Hawaiians cautioned against obsessing over a problem pupil who may have been sent to immersion school in hopes of reform but instead disrupted all routines. “Save the group,” they said. “Let that kid go.” Blackfeet language immersion school was part of a global movement to revive the old languages because embedded in them were a way of seeing the land and being in it. Highly romantic, it also had to be deeply practical.

The rule, of course, was that only Blackfeet could be spoken in the little school house, at least when children were present. This was a little tricky when white donors from cities faraway came to visit. But they did come and they did support the experiment.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.