August 17, 2022

Montana, scene of global gathering to save Native languages

Buffalo's Fire | By Clara Caufield

MISSOULA, Mont. -- Some warn that more than 3,000 Indigenous languages may be lost by the end of this century. To stop this erosion, the United Nations launched the International Decade of Indigenous Languages in 2022. A number of organizations worked on the global initiative, including the Institute on Collaborative Language Research, or CoLang.

“CoLang 2022 was a great venue for all who care or are interested in language documentation and revitalization,” University of Montana Professor Mizuki Miyashita, who holds a doctorate degree in linguistics, told Buffalo’s Fire. “Emphasizing the skills enhances language work,” she said. CoLang participants typically inspire and encourage one another to share their knowledge and experience.

Miyashita, a co-director of the institute, was a primary organizer of the June 13 to July 8 at the University of Montana event. Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and Susan Penfield, a retired linguistics anthropologist also helped coordinate the gathering. The University of Montana and Chief Dull Knife College co-hosted the month-long symposium dedicated to saving Indigenous languages.

It took four years to plan and organize the symposium, which was interrupted in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic, Miyashita said. More than 200 people from around the world participated, she said. They represented at least 75 Indigenous language communities.

Language learners, instructors, activists, linguists, students, archivists, and education specialists sought new ways to manage language documentation and to restore languages with few remaining speakers.

“It was amazing and gratifying to see so many young people so dedicated to saving languages,” Littlebear told Buffalo’s Fire. “In the practicum portion of the symposium, these young people devised language acquisition activities that were designed to facilitate teaching and learning a language.” This was the seventh such event to be co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The American Indian Language Development Institute sponsored two workshops. Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage hosted a movie night; the Endangered Language Fund provided scholarships for Indigenous participants; and the Linguistic Society of America also gave scholarships to student members.

Participants ranged in age from tribal elders who are Native-first language speakers to college students. Many others were simply committed to the UN mission of preserving, revitalizing and promoting languages and helping improve the lives of those who speak them.”

Attendees had the opportunity to complete a two-week intensive course or participate in eight out of 39 workshops presented by more than 60 facilitators, half of them Indigenous scholars.

According to Miyashita, one highlight of the event was a poetry night presentation by Ofelia Zepada, a Native speaker and linguist who writes in both Tohono O’odham and English. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage sponsored a movie night, organized by Mary S. Linn, curator of Language and Cultural Vitality, and Hali Dardar, Language Vitality Project coordinator.

This event featured the screening of “Sooyii” directed by Krisztian Kery, which was filmed entirely in the Blackfeet language. Dardar interviewed the movie’s cultural advisor Jesse DeRosier and Stormee Kipp, the main actor in “Sooyii.” Both are members of the Blackfeet Nation. Kipp said his role required speaking only the Blackfeet language, challenging him to perfect the exactly right intonations.

DesRosier, a Blackfeet speaker, language instructor and cultural practitioner of the Blackfeet Tribe, noted the relevance of the film’s smallpox epidemic theme to the current Covid crisis. Smallpox decimated the Blackfeet Tribe in the 1800s, as it did many of the other American Indian tribes.

The film, which has already won awards in the independent film circuit, is scheduled for release to the general public soon.

Mina Seminole, a Northern Cheyenne Cultural Resources director and fluent Cheyenne speaker, was one of the symposium’s elder participants. “It was so amazing to learn about all the new digital technology apps, etcetera, that young people are using to recover and learn our languages,” she told Buffalo’s Fire. “All I ever knew was to speak it and encourage that among our young people, but they helped us become acquainted with this innovative technology.”

Said Chloe Ortega, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member who works at Chief Dull Knife College as a cultural videographer, “I learned so much from this experience but wish it could have involved more traditional story-telling and methods of teaching.”

The next CoLang is set for 2024. The Salt River Pima Maricopa Tribe and Arizona State University will co-host the event.

The late Darrell Kipp, a Blackfeet tribal member who earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Harvard, was often quoted during the conference. He returned to the Blackfeet Reservation to start a tribal language immersion school.

Kipp has shared profound nuggets of advice that many remember to this day, such as “Never beg to save the language,” and “Our parents did not teach us the language because they loved us.” Or, “The language is powerful. It will handle many things for you if you let it.”

Other sage words from Kipp: “You must be very action oriented. Just act, and “Show don’t tell. Don’t talk about what you will do. Just talk it and show it.”

For more information, go to www.colang2024 and
Direct questions to the CoLang Advisory Circle at

Clara Caufield can be reached at