Land is Language

Land is Language

The Chippewa Cree work to revitalize the languages through a newly formed immersion program 

Story and photos by Ridley Hudson.

For a few years during his childhood, Dustin Whitford lived with his great-grandparents on the northwest side of Kahwisteketinahk, or Haystack Mountain. Every morning he would hear his great-grandparents, George and Minnie Watson, speaking in Cree to each other, as their house filled with the smell of coffee, bacon and Wīkask, or sweetgrass.


Emma Rock, an elder on the Mahchiwminahnahtik Chippewa and Cree Language Revitalization program board, laughs with other elders during a meeting about the immersion program. The elders plan to visit the tribal council to share the program’s success and reinforce its importance in preserving language.

After helping conduct a tribal survey in 2020, Whitford found that only 3% of 650 tribal members surveyed could speak Cree, and only one was a fluent Chippewa speaker. The results prompted Whitford’s passion to revive the language, leading him to help create a nonprofit language immersion program with Brenda St. Pierre, a former language teacher at Rocky Boy’s elementary school. 

Living at the base of Kahwisteketinahk, he heard stories from his great grandparents about the top of the mountain where a formation of shale rock resembling a mikisiw, or an eagle, which has significance to the land and culture for the tribe.


Jessica Kennedy-Stiffarm, the Indian Education for All coordinator at Havre High School, is in the process of hiring a Chippewa Cree language speaker for the local middle and high schools.

St. Pierre met Whitford at a tribal council meeting in 2019 when she proposed an idea for an immersion program. According to Whitford, he, St. Pierre and his cousin Bob Mitchell started meeting in March 2019 to discuss a plan to create a language program. St. Pierre started the program as the executive director, but when she got cancer she handed over the position to Whitford.

In May of 2020, the nonprofit Mahchiwminahnahtik Chippewa and Cree Language Revitalization, or MCCLR, got approved as an official program by the IRS and the state of Montana. This opened the door for grants and funding to hire employees. They raised $1 million from grant funding and began searching for trainees. In January 2021, eight paid full-time language trainees started learning the language for 14 months.

Ordell Denny studies for class with books that were provided through the Mahchiwminahnahtik Chippewa and Cree Language Revitalization program.

“(They) are reconnecting not only to the land, but they’re reconnecting to their identity as to who they are as Chippewa Cree people,” Whitford said. “It’s a very healing process.”

Paskwah Mostos Ahsini

Buffalo Rock

Buffalo Rock sits at the top of the hills on Rocky Boy’s land, facing directly south.



A mikisiw, or an eagle, sits on a branch overlooking the road that leads to Ochehachinahs, or the Bears Heart.


Bears paw mountains

Mahskwawahchisik, or Bears Paw Mountains, stretch across the landscape surrounding Rocky Boy’s reservation.


Bears heart

Ochehachinahs, or Bears Heart, is the tribe’s sacred mountain. Most of the mountain is on tribal land and non-tribal members are encouraged not to hike there.

Every weekday for the past 14 months, the group has met in the Mission House on Rocky Boy’s reservation, connected with Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, built in the 1930s.

“It’s ironic that we’re learning and meeting in these buildings,” said Clyde Brown, treasurer of the language program. 

Clyde Brown, treasurer for the Mahchiwminahnahtik Chippewa and Cree Language Revitalization program, raises funds for the program. Brown hopes the program will continue to grow so his kids and others can learn the language.

There is a history of physical punishment for speaking the language recounted by elders. However, Whitford and others say that the local church had interpreters to translate the sermons from preachers.

Dustin Whitford, executive director of Mahchiwminahnahtik Chippewa and Cree Language Revitalization program, stands in front of his childhood home at the base of Haystack Mountain. Whitford helps lead classes and plan curriculum at the language immersion program.

“Our churches here locally didn’t operate like the boarding schools,” said Whitford. “Our local churches incorporated our language into their curriculum.”

Brenda St. Pierre, one of the founders of MCCLR, says her dream is to see kids playing in the Cree language. As a teacher and mother, she saw the need for more linguistic education in schools and homes.

Whitford, now the president of the program, emphasizes maintaining a positive learning environment. He said generational trauma can sometimes make education difficult for tribal members, but the language class encourages the trainees to keep learning.

The Chippewa and Cree languages are unique in the way that they describe the seasons and the land surrounding them. 

“May” in the English vocabulary relating to the season, is the Sahkipahkahw Pisim translated as Blooming Moon, which signifies the season that the flowers and other vegetation start to bloom on Rocky Boy’s reservation, according to Whitford.

Dustin Whitford, left, Renita Watson, middle, Jennifer Tendoy, back left, and Bill The Boy Jr. listen to Whitford repeat words in Cree during a learning exercise. The classes use physical motions, or Total Physical Response (TPR), and repetition to help with memorization.

The animals that survive off of the land around the Bears Paw Mountains can be indicators of how long and harsh the winters are going to be. If beavers build their dams deeper, it’s known that the winter will be longer. If wasps build their nests higher, the winter will be short and spring will be dry.

Paskwaw Mostos, or buffalo, walks across the land owned by the Rocky Boy’s Buffalo Project. Eleven buffalo were returned to the land in 2021 as a step towards reintroduction of the species that holds cultural significance to the tribe.

Brown believes that without language, the balance of the tribe is thrown off. 

“Language is land, and land is language,” Brown said. “We’re closely connected to the land, not in ways that this is our land, but in ways that we are living on it. Our language teaches about respect, it teaches about self-respect. With self-respect comes land, (and) animals. It’s all connected.”

Kerry Murphy, a language trainee, holds an eagle feather while reflecting on her graduation from the Mahchiwminahnanahtik Chippewa and Cree Language Revitalization (MCCLR) program in March. After finishing the program Murphy was hired as a Chippewa Cree language instructor for two Havre public schools.
Sam Vernon, a Chippewa Cree elder, visits the immersive program almost every day helping trainees understand the origins of the languages. He loves seeing the younger generation learn how to speak in their native language.
Loni Taylor stands outside of the Mission House while visiting her brother Dustin Whitford and the language program trainees.

The immersion program sits between the arms of the Mahskwawahchisik, or Bears Paw Mountains that become visible after passing through the flat farmlands around Havre. 

Mahskwawahchisik resembles a bear because it has two paws that stretch out towards Big Sandy and Great Falls. 

The Bears Heart, or Ochehachinahs, also known as Baldy Butte on American maps, sits in the middle of the Mahskwawahchisik. This is a significant and sacred mountain for the Chippewa Cree. 

Mahchiwminahnahtik language program has run out of its initial funding and is currently seeking new donors. Until new funding is secured, the trainees plan to keep meeting once a week to keep working towards total fluency. 

St. Pierre, Whitford, the elders and everyone involved with MCCLR are continuing to push for the creation of a language department in the tribe’s council to have secured funding for the program to continue, rather than relying on grants alone.

Councilwoman Loni Taylor, Whitford’s sister and board member of MCCLR, is an advocate for the success and benefits of immersively learning the language because her daughter wants to join the program after school.

“This is where our land is. We have no choice but to learn it here,” Taylor said.

Pauline Standing Rock, left, and Pearl Whitford engage in an exercise with the immersive language program. The elder instructors help the trainees when they have questions.

The 14-month program ended on March 31 when the trainees, board members and elders came together at a ceremony at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where trainees spoke about their experience and the impact that learning the language has had on them.

“If people speak (the Chippewa Cree language), they are going to feel it,” said Pauline Standing-Rock, an elder language instructor with two grandkids who are trainees. 

Kikāwīnāw Askīy, ‘Our mother the earth,’ is a saying that Whitford heard frequently from all seven of his great-grandparents and grandparents.

“They would talk about the importance of the land and taking without giving back. It’s not ours. We will never own the land,” said Whitford. “When it’s our time to go we can’t take the land with us, the land takes us back to it.”