Sharing language with the world
Native actor Eugene Brave Rock was thrust into the film industry spotlight in 2017 after portraying the role of “The Chief.” In a famous scene that resonated with Indian Country, Brave Rock spoke Siksikaitsitapi to Wonder Woman in the movie.
The director, Patty Jenkins, allowed Brave Rock to introduce himself in the scene, he said, as his character, ”Oki nitaniko Napi.”
Brave Rock says that pivotal moment in his life caused him to further the embrace of his own Native language.
Since then, Brave Rock has used his platform on social media and in the film industry to promote the resilience and importance of preserving Native languages worldwide.
His latest initiative — a partnership with Blackfoot elder Sheldon First Rider and Red Iron Labs — is a multimedia approach to revive his own Blackfoot language. The initiative is appropriately called the Blackfoot Language Revival.
Brave Rock explained the distinction of language names. “I am Kainai, which is one of four tribes."
The Blackfoot Confederacy, Niitsitapi or Siksikaitsitapi meaning "the people" or "Blackfoot-speaking real people," is a historic collective name for linguistically related groups that make up the Blackfoot or Blackfeet people: the Siksika (Blackfoot), the Kainai (Blood), and two sections which are the Piikani (Piegan Blackfeet), the Northern Piikani (Aapátohsipikáni) and the Southern Piikani (Amskapi Piikani or Pikuni).
Kainai and Pikuni are both names of tribes of Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfeet), and Pikuni and Kainai both speak Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfeet). "The separation is because colonizers went and put an imaginary line in our territory."
Getting the Blackfoot language onto the blockbuster big screen
During the filming of “Wonder Woman,” Brave Rock spoke with director Patty Jenkins about introducing himself to Gal Gadot in his own Blackfoot language. “Patty brought it to my attention to speak my language out of respect to the fact that they called me Chief. She mentioned I never have to call myself Chief,” said Brave Rock.
After the movie aired in theaters, the Blackfoot language was a topic of discussion for many filmgoers and critics. In the movie, many Native people were moved to tears during the moment.
Due to “Wonder Woman’s” popularity, Brave Rock was pulled in every direction for interviews. “I was running on three or four hours of sleep a night with so many different interviews and places to be. I visited schools on the Rez and attended screenings … It was wild, I went home to a hero’s welcome. Young kids told me, ‘You are my hero.’ It was amazing. I am a hero because I shared my language with the rest of the world. It made them all so proud to hear Blackfoot on the big screen.”
A new initiative to revive the Blackfoot language
Since “Wonder Woman’s” success in 2017, Eugene Brave Rock has continued to promote the importance of Native people, with an emphasis on language. Since COVID hit, Brave Rock has partnered with Blackfoot elder Sheldon First Rider and Red Iron Labs to create “Blackfoot Language Revival” a multimedia website to revive the Blackfoot language.
On the site includes the 80-character Blackfoot syllabus, information on a Blackfoot keyboard for typing the language, and access to the Blackfoot language app.
Brave Rock admits Wonder Woman was a key factor in his efforts to revive the Blackfoot language at a personal and public level. “The movie “Wonder Woman” really inspired me to learn my own language.”
“The Blackfoot Language Revival has been a lifelong dream of mine. I am working with a 67-year-old elder to get a website going. We were slotted to release the app and are working on it now.”
Brave Rock also says they are actively working to create more content on YouTube, Instagram, and more.
The Blackfoot Language Revival project is currently running a fundraising effort called the Oki Language Project created earlier this month in tandem with the website.
The fundraiser states in part, “3 out of 4 Indigenous languages are endangered, and that the Oki Language Project is an initiative inspired by the Blackfoot Language Revival Group with a vision to create thriving and proud communities for future generations through active promotion of Indigenous history, language and culture.”
Through all of his efforts, Brave Rock poses a question to Native people all over Turtle Island: “Ask yourself, what kind of an ancestor do I want to be?”
“If every Indigenous person knew their language, it would bring so much more empowerment to each other, to themselves, to their identity, to their culture,” says Brave Rock.
“They'd be walking with their head up a lot higher than it is now. I feel like our people are going through an identity crisis.”
Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor of Indian Country Today who enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling he is also the opinions’ editor, .
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