Kids get language immersion at Arapaho school

By Martin Reed
Riverton, Wyoming (AP) 5-09

Swinging around on a piece of playground equipment at Riverton City Park, 6-year-old Cheyleigh Moss answered an important question from Teresa Hughes.

“Koo heesnee?” asked Hughes, a teacher at the Northern Arapaho Language Immersion School.

“Heesneenoo,” the school pupil responded in the tribe’s traditional language.

For the uninitiated, the exchange was unrecognizable. But between student and teacher, it was a simple conversation in Arapaho: “Are you hungry?” followed by “I’m hungry.”

The 20 or so pupils of the school that allows only Arapaho language spoken within its walls in Arapahoe took a recent trip to the park to play and learn.

“It’s part of the immersion. We’re bringing them to the outside to expose them to the trees and the grass,” Hughes said.

“We teach them seasonally how things occur,” she said. “What we’re teaching them right now is about the meadowlark,” an important bird for the tribe.

The warmer weather emerging is a sign of rejuvenation in nature that translates to language, said Wayne C’Hair, lead teacher at the school.

“It’s a new beginning,” C’Hair said. “It’s a new year for the Arapaho people and we try to teach that in the classroom.”

A good example is the Arapaho word for the month: “Benii’owuusiis.” Translated: “We have conquered winter.”

The teachers took their preschool through first-grade pupils to Jaycee Park in Riverton for more exposure to nature and the tribe’s language outside of the classroom environment.


Hughes recalled the children’s interaction with Arapaho language on the playground, “telling each other ‘I want a drink of water’ or ‘I need to go to the bathroom,’ things they know.”

For the adults, hearing the language from children’s mouths is like the seeing nature blossom back to life after a harsh winter.

“I haven’t heard Arapaho spoken by kids in 35 years,” C’Hair said. “It’s coming back.”

The Northern Arapaho Tribe is facing a crisis because of a lack of its members learning how to speak the native language. But with the language school opening last October near Arapahoe, the tribe hopes to turn the tide.

Laura Shakespeare, a tribal elder who helps at the school, said 243 of the tribe’s roughly 8,000 members can speak the language.

“I never talk English to them,” Shakespeare, 73, said about the children.

Then in the language she and others are desperately trying to preserve, Shakespeare said, “I always tell them don’t speak English, talk Arapaho.”

It is almost the exact opposite of what happened to Shakespeare when she was the same age as the children on the playground.

“I didn’t know how to speak English until I went to St. Stephen’s School” at age 5, she said. “I started there as a beginner, learning English at St. Stephen’s School. I didn’t know how to speak English. I only knew Arapaho.”

From her wheelchair parked under the shade of trees, Shakespeare can watch the children at play and hear their Arapaho phrases.

Hohootno trees.

Wooxuu’no grass.

Nii’eihiiho’ birds.

“My ancestors and me, we know how powerful these little ones are,” Shakespeare said. “They’ll be ones to carry the language forward so the language will never die out.”

Hughes smiled when she talked about the children reciting prayers, singing songs and using sign language – all in Arapaho.

A few months ago during nap time at the school, Hughes heard talking in a soft voice from one of the children. The young girl was singing an Arapaho Christmas song in her sleep.

“We want them to think and dream in Arapaho and it’s already happening,” Hughes said.

Preschool teacher Mary Headley also witnesses each day the children increasingly absorb the language.

“I see them speaking to each other now,” Headley said. “It might be short but it’s a start. It’s a hope. It’s come a long ways to get to this point.”