Beneath the shade of a large tent, 29 Crow teenagers repeat Lanny Real Bird’s words, trying their best to match his pronunciation and corresponding hand signs.
They speak and sign them quickly: chi-sshiia (to return), baa-tchaa-chek (awesome), ku-maa-leek (I’m leaving), a-paa-le (to grow). The class rattles off more than 100 in succession, pausing throughout to laugh as they mix up words or fumble through a sign.
The teens, age 11 through 17, are practicing Apsaalooke, their tribe’s language. None can speak it with fluency.
This is the third day of a weeklong language immersion camp hosted by the tribe. The campsite is set upon a hilly field near the Bighorn Canyon, where the sun emblazons red-rock cliffs and beats down on the children as they dance and play volleyball.
It’s also a stone’s throw from the site of an old intertribal skirmish, known to the Crow as the Grapevine Creek Battle, in which their warriors slaughtered a band of Blackfeet intruders looking to steal horses.
Organizers chose this spot for a reason. They want the campers to find a sense of pride in their heritage, and hopefully to appreciate their language as part of it.
Read more: Billings Gazette