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Photo copyrighted, by Allen Russell,

Photo copyrighted, by Allen Russell,

Keeping Tradition and Language Alive

November 16, 2022

Keeping Tradition and Language Alive


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By Virginia Myers

Lucy Real Bird is Apsáalooke. That doesn’t just mean that she is an enrolled member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation, which she is. Or even that she is a member of a family prominent among Apsáalooke leaders, dancers and bead artists.

It means that, every day, she embodies her identity. Carries it with her as she teaches music to elementary school students at the Crow Agency school on the southern Montana Crow Reservation where she lives, and shares her Native language and dance, food and art with the children — 98 percent of whom come from Apsáalooke families but who are not always encouraged to celebrate that heritage.

“We want our children to be strong in who they are as Apsáalooke,” says Real Bird. “We want them to be strong in reading and math, all of it. But they need to have a foundation of who they are.”

Rooted in Family

Real Bird had that foundation growing up. She knows that Apsáalooke (pronounced “up-SAW-low-guh”) means “children of the large-beaked bird,” and that the large-beaked bird is not a crow, as white settlers interpreted, but a thunderbird. She is the descendant of chiefs: Medicine Tail and Medicine Crow on her father’s side, and Gray Bull and Sitting Bull on her mother’s side. Yes, that Sitting Bull. Her family runs a re-enactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn because their ancestors fought there.

“I’m really blessed that both sides of my family are traditionalists,” says Real Bird. “Through the process of colonization, a lot of families have lost who they are as Apsáalooke. I’m very blessed to come from families of resistance.” Real Bird’s grandmother had to practice sun dancing in secret, hiding her traditions: She prayed for the children, that they would all be sun dancers. “Now all her children are sun dancers and all her grandchildren are sun dancers,” says Real Bird.

I’m really blessed that both sides of my family are traditionalists. Through the process of colonization, a lot of families have lost who they are as Apsáalooke.

In addition to this inheritance, Real Bird’s parents were also teachers — along with a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a grandmother and other relatives. “Education was always important to us in our family,” says Real Bird. “They always pushed us to go to school and to get our education and come back and help our people. That’s the path that was set for us.”

Real Bird hands down the traditions and the love of education in her classroom, treating the children there as part of her extended family. She teaches them about their clans, and how they are related to a big network of people who support them. She tells them stories that will convey confidence, pride and a sense of community.

“We talk good to each other,” she tells them, meaning the children should be kind to one another. In bringing these stories forward, she says, “We are bringing morals and values.”

“In the mornings when we get up, our grandmother would tell us, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re handsome, you’re healthy.’ And now our children don’t have that. Our job as teachers is to try to bring that to them.” So Real Bird has a student speak in Apsáalooke at the beginning of each school day, saying, “I am healthy. I am awesome. I am loved.” Real Bird says, “Maybe they’re not loved at home, they’re not being told they’re awesome, they’re not being told they’re good people every morning. So we bring honor, every morning.”

A History of Stolen Tradition

Eighty-five percent of Crow people speak Apsáalooke as their first language, but many have lost it, largely due to white settlers’ early efforts to forbid the language. During the 19th century and into the 1930s, thousands of Native children were sent to boarding schools designed to “tame the savages” by wiping out their cultural practices and forcing them to assimilate to European culture. They were stripped of their Native names, punished for speaking Indigenous languages, and their long hair — considered a source of power in many Native beliefs — was cut.

When families refused to send their children to these schools, they were sometimes forcibly taken from their homes. The idea was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” says Real Bird, quoting Capt. Richard Pratt, who founded what is considered to be the model for these institutions, the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of Native children were sent to boarding schools designed to “tame the savages” by wiping out their cultural practices and forcing them to assimilate to European culture.

Efforts to scrub traditions from the lives of children and replace them with “better” ways of living created the feeling that Native ways were somehow undesirable and wrong, says Real Bird. That feeling has trickled down through generations, as the children who were subjected to school doctrine passed it on to their children and grandchildren. And so, even within the Apsáalooke community, some people still look down on “the old ways.”

Real Bird calls this “lateral oppression,” when the oppressed person oppresses others in their own community. She talks about colonization — the concept that white people didn’t just take land from Native people but also tried to “colonize their minds.”

“A lot of people in their thinking are colonized,” says Real Bird. “We want to speak good English and write good English and they don’t want to support Indigenous language and Indigenous knowledge.” Real Bird applauds the AFT’s resolution to support passage of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, which recognizes and tries to mitigate the harm done by these boarding schools. “We are still being affected by it,” she says.

Resistance from Within

What does this look like in schools? Even some of Real Bird’s colleagues resist the movement to embrace Indigenous language and culture. “A lot of our community has ‘caged minds,’” she says, referring to a concept shared by Native colonization scholar Cornel Pewewardy at a recent National Indian Education Association conference she and other AFT members attended. “They don’t support anything we do.” They even bully those who try to share traditions and language.

But it’s the children of those who have rejected tradition who are most hungry for it. “Their children are the ones who want to sing, they want to learn the language, they want to know the stories,” she says. “They’re so into it! Because they didn’t have it growing up. Their families weren’t traditional.”

Their children are the ones who want to sing, they want to learn the language, they want to know the stories.

Real Bird knows that local, state and regional laws support her efforts to preserve Apsáalooke culture. But it’s the people closest to her who resist most — the teachers who say they are supportive, but when they are designated as a native Apsáalooke speaker, they do not speak the language in class. Real Bird wants to raise awareness and reach them, too. “People don’t even know what colonization is,” she says. “We want to address this lateral oppression.”

One way to do that is to populate the schools with more Native teachers who embrace tradition. Montana’s Class 7 American Indian Language and Culture Specialist License is a great help: It is a teaching certification made possible through collaboration with tribal governments that certify that individuals have met the criteria as specialists in their Indigenous language. Class 7 covers 11 languages, including Apsáalooke.

We want to support our people, our teachers, our children. We want to make a better life for them.

The next step will be to get fair pay for those teachers, says Real Bird. At the Blackfeet schools farther north in Montana, Class 7 teachers get full-time work and teacher-level pay. At the Crow schools, they are only permitted part-time work and are paid as paraprofessionals.

Real Bird is working to expand the network of people advocating for strong Apsáalooke teaching in her schools, meeting with the tribal government and developing parent groups to educate families and get them involved. She hopes to present a professional development session about the importance of tradition and the ways colonialism influences Native communities. She’d also like to see more Apsáalooke representatives become school district representatives, in a district that is 99 percent Apsáalooke students.

“It’s hard work but we need to do it,” says Real Bird. “We want to support our people, our teachers, our children. We want to make a better life for them.”

More Resources: Indigenous Peoples and Native Americans

Share My Lesson is your go-to resource for indigenous peoples and Native American lesson plans with this free PreK-12 collection of resources.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are... See More

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