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  Photo by Meagan Thompson

Luella Brien slowly repeats a word in English to her twin boys Jacob, left, and Joshua, center. Though Brien grew up on the Crow Reservation and has taken Crow language classes, she does not speak her ancestors' tongue fluently. She and her boys represent the generations that have begun to speak only English.


Fading Fluency
Crow Indians have long held onto their language. Some worry that's starting to change.

Story by Luella N. Brien
Photos by Meagan Thompson

Montana state law requires some form of Indian education in the classroom, though the requirement has been widely ignored.

“Traditional music and language are so important to Indian students, because it gives them a sense of belonging,” Graber says.

Rarely do Indian students gain validation of their culture or themselves in the classroom or outside their reservation. The lack of validation has contributed to the diminishment of the Crow language.

When I was younger there wasn’t as much influence from outside the reservation. We had music and television, but Public Enemy and Bobby Brown didn’t make us want to turn away from our culture. The kids in grade school now face more pressures than I ever did. Drugs, MTV, clothes, and being cool all come earlier in their lives.

Where does speaking Crow fit into it?

They tease each other if they talk in Crow, but when they try to talk like rappers they shout encouragement to each other.

For children and parents alike, many Crow speakers find that life is easier in one language – English.

It’s easier to navigate the world without an accent.

These are the things we need to change.

I will continue to try to learn my language; I want my children to learn.

Our language makes us a tribe, not our braids or beadwork.
We are Apsáalooke and unless we sound like it we will not survive.



The living room of Beverly Wilson Big Man, seated right, is filled with gleeful shrieks and giggles as her great-grandchildren play at her feet. Big Man says that she and her husband, a full-blood Crow, conversed only in Crow but did not teach the language to their children because of the prejudice that they had endured for speaking Crow. Now she makes a point to speak to her great-grandchildren in Crow because the language is dying with each passing generation.

Elijah Not Afraid listens on his first day of class while Head Start teacher Kathy Dawes points to colors and her students shout them out in the Crow language.

A page from the story "Isahkaalaxpe" about a boy living with his grandmother and the hardships they endure, depicts a scene from an arrow-throwing game that men of the Apsaalooke or Crow Nation, still play today.

Wyatt Bastien, 7, throws an arrow in the backyard on the Crow Reservation while his friend Berry Brown Pettey, 8, waits his turn. On this day the boys concur that the score is "about even."

Frank Bastien makes arrows while his daughter Frankie chooses two that she will play with. Once the arrows are painted in the family color, red, Bastien says women are no longer allowed to touch them. Despite the tradition, he still makes smaller non-painted arrows for his daughter.

Liz Pretty On Top, a language instructor for the Crow Agency Public School, says "Language is the voice of our culture. My generation is the last to really be fluent in Crow."

JR Charges Strong try to keep the beat to a rendition of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' that was made in traditional powwow style. Dave Graber, the music teacher, says he is in the process of writing a grant that would bring more funding for teaching traditional Indian music.

Sarge Old Horn (back) of the Crow Nation wears traditional style crow attire as he dances with his grandson at a powwow in Billings.


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