A language is a reflection of who its speakers are as people, conveying as it does their customs, beliefs and daily habits for a particular time and place. More than 6,000 languages are still currently spoken around the world, but the majority of these have a small, often shrinking community of speakers. Based on current trends, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warns that around half of the world's languages may disappear by the end of this century.
While many of these threatened language communities might usually be found in exotic locales like the Amazon rainforest or Indonesian archipelago, three are much closer to home here in North Dakota, belonging to the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold Reservation. Along with Hidatsa and Mandan, the Arikara language is listed by UNESCO as being a critically endangered language. Centered around White Shield, among the Arikara community there are only a handful of people still able to speak the language, and none with complete fluency.
"They say an indigenous language dies every two weeks," said Brad Kroupa, an anthropologist on staff at the Arikara Cultural Center that opened last October in White Shield. "For our language to survive in the 21st Century, what we need to do is adapt with the times."
Staff at the Arikara Cultural Center in White Shield have developed a
language-learning app for Apple devices. The program is available for free on iTunes, by searching for “Arikara” under applications.
Part of that adaptation is by making use of modern technology to better engage the community's youth with the language. The latest means of doing so is with the release of an Arikara language-learning application for use on Apple products like the iPad and iPhone.
"It's pretty neat," Kroupa commented. "You can walk by kids and you think they're playing games on their phones, and they walk by and you hear some Arikara words."
In addition to making available phrases and vocabulary, the app also contains some cultural and historical information about Arikara culture.
Together with Thornton Media Inc., Whirlwind Bull Perkins, Kroupa, and the cultural center's director, Dancing Eagle Perkins, developed the application, which can presently be downloaded for free through iTunes or online at (itunes.apple.com/us/app/arikara/id704519050?mt=8).
"Hopefully within the next couple of weeks it's going to be available for Android," said Kroupa.
The app isn't the first instance where technology has been used in revitalization efforts, with much of the language preserved by a linguist during the 1980s and 1990s by recording Arikara elders on tape. Even if the language fell completely out of use, this collection could be a valuable starting point for its revival.
"We are lucky enough to have an extensive collection of materials," Kroupa explained. "The Arikara language is very well documented."
More recently, the Internet has also been of service. As an instructor of Arikara at Fort Berthold Community College, Kroupa said the college recently made the first-level course available online.
While this allows Arikara students around the country to take a more active interest in learning their language, this means of instruction makes it somewhat more difficult for imparting proper pronunciation. Kroupa has gotten around this by allowing students to arrange for him to send by text messaging audio recordings of himself speaking the vocabulary.
The mobile app is just a part of the broader effort to revitalize the Arikara language by members of the tribe.
"We're all trying," said Delilah Yellow Bird, an Arikara educator at White Shield School. Though she does not consider herself fluent, Yellow Bird learned a great deal from the tribal elders. "I came in as a secretary for the bilingual education program back in the mid-seventies. That's where I learned, was just going into classrooms with the elders on a daily basis, and through a lot of repetition. It's a lot of repetition."
Through the efforts of the school, the local Boys & Girls Clubs chapter and the cultural center, supporters of the Arikara language hope to encourage the younger generation to take an interest in it for the tribe's future.
"The Arikara language is probably the main part of who we are. It is our culture, it's our identity," Kroupa explained. "It allows us to express ourselves in our own way, based on our beliefs and world views."
"It would strengthen our identities, and strengthen what we would need to do for the future," said Yellow Bird. She points to more than a century of suppression of America's indigenous languages through the federal boarding school system as contributing to Arikara's near-disappearance. "Hopefully we'll get a hundred years to regain it, and we will be fluent again."
The long-term survival of the language will ultimately depend on the restoration in the community of a fluency base, without which Arikara will become little more than a linguistic relic. Fluency allows speakers to almost effortlessly blend together ideas to form and understand new words. But a lack of fluency makes it difficult for a language to continue evolving with the times, which itself makes it less likely to be used in daily conversation and contributes to its decline.
Cultural center director Dancing Eagle Perkins explained that while Arikara has compound or hybridized phrases for items like the television and stockings, the language lacks them for personal technological devices developed after the 1970s and 1980s, like the cell phone or photocopier.
"That's when Arikara started really to take a downward dive as far as fluent speakers" go, said Perkins. Various sports and activities that have by now become pertinent to community life would also need words of their own developed. "We don't have the individuals now that can do that," he said.
Not fluent himself, Perkins treads carefully when trying to develop neologisms, running prospective phrasings by the tribe's elders for their approval before adopting them. Perkins has also looked to the Pawnee to see how that linguistically-similar nation has adapted its vocabulary to suit new concepts.
"It's a very critical stage that we're in right now," said Kroupa, "with a lot of questions and decisions that we as people need to decide on, as far as what direction we want to go in the future with our culture."
Setting up a language program can be cost-intensive, and there has been a degree of help from government bodies in the form of grants and financial assistance.
"There are a lot of challenges," said state Rep. Kenton Onstad. "I don't know if there was really a push last session 2013 but in 2009, 2011, different avenues were tried and there was some partial funding. Not what they'd have liked, but some partial funding that would help get this thing going. It didn't get a lot of traction in the legislature."
Since the signing of the Native American Languages Act by the President George Bush in 1990, there has been some measure of federal support for revitalizing indigenous languages. Even now, a Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act is being considered by legislators in Washington D.C., which would aim to provide grant funding for tribal language immersion programs. But some groups would benefit more than others.
"We're not at that stage to have language-nest immersion in the classrooms," Yellow Bird said, lacking enough speakers of Arikara to teach it.
"In our situation we would actually have to start training teachers and speakers," said Perkins. "It's a two-fold thing."
But Perkins added that it is ultimately not schools' responsibility to preserve the language, seeing them instead as supplemental resources. Rather, fluency begins in the home, and the community.
"In order for the language to grow, in order for it to really take off, the responsibility falls on the community. Everybody has a role in it, and everybody's important," he said. "It's the only platform that's capable of handling the complexity of revitalization."
The task is difficult, because even within a small community such as White Shield a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds exist. "It also could be a good thing, but we have to get everybody on the same page."
Which is the main mission of Arikara Cultural Center, to both inspire interest within the community and to serve as a learning resource. The center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. People can call 743-4013 for more information about the facility.