CROW AGENCY – A drum circle sang songs of victory. A smudging ceremony wiped away the tears. And Crow tribal elders spoke in Apsáalooke (Crow language) about the next generation that has yet to be born.

Friday’s celebration at Little Big Horn College wasn’t just the culmination of a years-long project to capture the words and culture of the Crow people, it was also a testament to saving the words that had been buried deep in many tribal members’ memories, preserving them and making them live again.

On Friday, at a three-hour ceremony, The Language Conservancy, an Indiana-based group focused on preserving languages, especially indigenous tongues, unveiled the “Crow Dictionary,” a massive collection of nearly 850 pages that documents the language and is the first major collection of the language published since 1975.

Not only is the dictionary more user-friendly and modern, it doubles the number of collected words from 5,500 to more than 10,000 – a huge accomplishment for saving a language that had been on the decline, but has recently seen a turnaround as language immersion programs grow on the reservation and a popular phone app has digitized the dictionary.

In many ways, the songs and speeches weren’t just a celebration of the dictionary’s arrival, they were a victory against time itself.

“For other languages, you can go somewhere else in the world to still hear them being spoken,” said Jacob Brien, whose Crow name is Ishkoochìia Chiiakaamnáah. “But this is the only place in the world where you can learn about this and hear it.”

Estimates range on how many people speak Apsáalooke, but many peg the number around 2,000.

Brien is a student at Rocky Mountain College who is spending the summer at The Language Conservancy. His goal is to become a linguist to help preserve the Crow and grow the number of Crow speakers. Even at 19 years old, he understands “without our language, we won’t have our culture.”

He’s spending the bulk of the summer in Bloomington, Indiana – a long way from southern Montana. He’s learning the software and how to continue building upon the Crow dictionary so that when the succeeding editions come out, the number of words will grow and the definitions will become even more precise.

He’s listed in the acknowledgements, and explains that he had a direct part of helping to write the definitions of kinship, which are different in the Crow culture than in many American families. For example, your brother’s children are considered your children, too. And your mother’s brothers and sisters administer discipline and guidance, leaving parents to fill a more nurturing role.

“To be listed next to the names of some of my heroes is a huge honor,” Brien said.

Jacob Brien, a college student at Rocky Mountain College, has been working with The Language Conservancy to preserve, document and promote the Crow language. (Darrell Ehrlick/Daily Montanan)
Jacob Brien, a college student at Rocky Mountain College, has been working with The Language Conservancy to preserve, document and promote the Crow language. (Darrell Ehrlick/Daily Montanan)

Brien is happy that the language programs, including in-school immersion, are growing in popularity. Even as he was growing up, he said that many teachers just assumed the kids could speak and understand Crow. He said he knew a few words, but had to learn much of the language in middle and high school.

He said the language isn’t necessarily difficult, but it requires memorizing a lot of compound words, made up of phonemes, or letter/sound combinations that stand for certain words that are put together. For example, the Crow word for coffee, bilishpítisshe, is a compound word that translates literally to “black water.”

The effort to preserve the language and print the dictionary was done through the help of nearly 100 volunteer Crow speakers using a method that was invented nearly a century ago called “rapid word collection.”

Bob Rugh, a staff member at The Language Conservancy, helped lead the technical process and trains linguists. He explained that groups of four to six Crow speakers broke out into groups. Each group took a common word (there are 1,800) and were encouraged to think of as many Apsáalooke words related to that English word as possible. From there, they were able to build a more expansive Crow language word list. In the process, many older, lesser used words were collected and preserved.

Shawn Real Bird, the economic development director of the Crow nation, told the crowd of more than 100 people not only would the dictionary help preserve the language, but it would give the future a vocabulary of its own.

“This will maintain the language for our children, our grandchildren and those not born yet. It will give them words for our sun dance, our pipe ceremony, our fasting ceremony,” Real Bird said. “This will hopefully be the beginning for an associate’s, a bachelor’s, master’s and even Ph.D., so I want you to take this and pray about it in whatever ceremonies you use.”

Janine Pease, who has been a towering figure at Little Big Horn College and a key force in developing the Apsáalooke language programs, was honored for her work.

“Language is a gift from the creator,” she said. “These words honor the people who are here and all the others who said them. They were said by people in 1700. They were said by people in 1500 and in 1200. They are voices from our long distant past.”

She rejected the notion that Apsáalooke has been coopted by English because its vocabulary is too old and not robust enough to describe more modern concepts.

“We own our world, and we name our world. People have said that we need English in order to make it work, not so,” Pease said. “We don’t live in someone else’s world, we live in ours.”