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Language course preserves Northern Arapaho culture

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LARAMIE, Wyo. -- More than a dozen University of Wyoming students, their
family members and friends sit outside on a pleasant Friday night in
September. They eat their fill of traditional American Indian foods and
swap stories of their upbringings, career goals, and even Dallas Cowboy
football. It doesn't feel like it, but they are in a class.

The Wyoming Council for the Humanities, and additional financial support
from the College of Arts and Sciences and the American Indian Studies
Program, have enabled UW this year to offer eight credit hours of Northern
Arapaho language instruction through the Department of Modern and Classical
Languages.

Course instructor Wayne C'Hair travels from the Wind River Indian
Reservation to Laramie to teach the class for eight consecutive weekends
the first half of each semester. Students go to class for four hours on
Fridays and then have a meal together which they all prepare and share. The
class meets for an additional 3.5 hours Saturday mornings.

Northern Arapaho was offered in 2003, but its new association with the
language department means that when completed with a grade "C" or above,
the class now fulfills the College of Arts and Sciences' foreign language
requirement.

"We support this type of course," said Klaus Hanson, former languages
department head. "This certainly represents a new opportunity for
interested students, who now can learn a foreign language that is in fact
much 'closer' in significance to Wyoming students in particular."

Jenny Ingram, WCH publications and development coordinator, agreed and
noted that the grant committee felt the relationship added strength to the
program.

According to Ingram, the grant proposal, submitted by AIS Program Director
Judy Antell, was a perfect fit for a narrow WCH grant line earmarked for
language preservation projects in Wyoming involving Wyoming Indian
languages.

The funds for the grant were generated from a 1994 project between the
Arapaho Nation and Walt Disney Company. The unlikely pair teamed up to dub
the animated classic "Bambi" into Northern Arapaho and distributed
videotapes throughout the reservation. The profits were given back to the
Arapaho Nation to help continue language preservation efforts.

"Combined with the two other language preservation grants WCH awarded this
summer, we have now expended all the funds for the grant line, so we are no
longer in the 'Bambi' business," Ingram said. "But we hope this grant will
serve as seed money for the Northern Arapaho language program and spark
interest for future sources of funding."

Class member Yolanda Hvizdak, an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho
Nation studying women's and American Indian studies at UW, said she is
thankful for the course and hopes the university is able to offer it every
year.

"I think it's important for us to have that connection while we're here
going to school -- to still be able to stay in touch with our culture and
our traditions.

"Hopefully we can learn our language and be able to speak it and
communicate with our elders. We need to go back home and teach it to our
little ones so they don't lose it. The language is almost gone. It's up to
our generation to bring it back."

C'Hair is trying to help his people do just that. He cites new technology
introduced to the reservation 40 years ago as the reason for the decline in
the Native language.

"When I was a kid, I would go to my grandma and grandpa's house and grandma
would cook us something like frybread or a berry gravy. Then we'd form a
circle and she would tell us these Arapaho legends and we would use our
imagination," he explained. "But then later on, when electricity and
television came to the homes, the kids, they put the language and the
culture aside for what they thought was more exciting."

C'Hair, who at age 60 is thought to be the youngest person fluent in
Northern Arapaho, said that without the language, Arapaho people are in
danger of losing their cultural identities because the two are inseparable.

"The language is who you are. If you speak Arapaho, you are Arapaho. You
speak Shoshone, you are Shoshone. It is very important that our kids get
their language back because they are not complete without it," he said.

Northern Arapaho language is taught at the three reservation schools, and
C'Hair, an Arapaho elder who teaches Arapaho language and culture at
Central Wyoming College, the Wind River Tribal College and St. Stephens
Indian School, is happy to have the opportunity to teach the class at UW.

"I want our kids to bring the language back, and keep it going, but I also
want non-Native students and people at UW to be aware that the language is
still spoken and to try and understand our way of life. Arapahos are still
here and this was our land at one time," he said.

Both Native and non-Native students should benefit from the class, which
aims to reflect and preserve the culture of the Arapaho Nation, according
to Antell.

"Language is a vital expression of culture and this project promotes
cultural learning through the use of traditional stories, songs, games and
expressions of the Arapaho people," Antell said, noting the dinners provide
a perfect opportunity to add depth to the classroom experience.

Hvizdak agreed, saying, "One of the things we do back home is eat together.
This is really good that we have this sense of community. That really means
a lot, because this is how it would be if we were back at home."