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Browning educator works to preserve Blackfeet language

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | February 12, 2024 12:00 AM

“ōk̇ii niisṫoō ǐǐnnōk̇´ ṗiik̇ǔnii niṫtsin´k̇ǎasim o´nōk̇īyk̇ǔṫtsis, nitṫīyǎaṗiitsin´k̇ǎasim,” Robert Hall speaks in Blackfoot. This is how he introduces himself in his native language, translating to: “hello, I am Piikuni, my name is Elk Robe, my English name is Robert Hall.”

Hall is the Blackfeet Native American Studies Director for Browning Public Schools, curating a curriculum for the Blackfoot language and preserving the tribes’ cultural traditions for the next generation. He got a shoutout from friend and language student Lily Gladstone recently when she won a Golden Globe for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Gladstone began her acceptance speech in Blackfoot, a moment that Hall won’t soon forget.

“By Lily speaking Blackfoot up there, she reminded the world of our sovereignty. She brought her sovereignty up there and she let the world know that she comes from a different place, a place that still has its laws, still has its treaties, still has its language,” Hall said. 

Hall remembers growing up in Browning and hearing elders speak Blackfoot — they would often lament about how important it was to speak their own language. Hearing them converse at local convenience stores, Hall said part of the driving force behind wanting to learn the language was to understand what they were saying.  

“In my worldview, that was like a geriatric language, you know, old people talk like that. And eventually, as I started getting a little older in high school, they were no longer speaking at those places anymore. We learned what happened, why many people aren't speaking. And in the meantime, I’m learning a handful of words,” Hall said. 

The Blackfeet were among numerous tribes in the U.S. and Canada to have their children sent to Indian Boarding Schools toward the end of the 19th century. According to the Montana State Library’s History Portal, these schools focused on cultural assimilation and is part of what stripped many native people of knowing their traditional language. The forced cultural assimilation of native people has led to a disruption in the way they would have learned their language, which for many tribes was done orally. 

When Hall studied at the University of Montana, where he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he dove head first into learning the Blackfoot language. He studied under UM Native Studies Professor S. Neyooxet Greymorning, who created a method of teaching language called ASLA, accelerated second language acquisition. The method uses a vast array of images to create a story. Hall said all of the practice is done orally, just by listening to a language and speaking it. 

“It emulates how it works when you learn a language as a first language. You're creating a landscape where you're allowed that. I learned Arapaho through him, because he's an Arapaho fluent speaker. And this really piqued my interest in wanting to learn Blackfoot even more,” Hall said. 

Collecting all of the old dictionaries he could get his hands on, he created his own library of the Blackfoot language and began studying linguistics. 

When he moved back to Browning, he met William Big Bull, who had created a writing system for the language. Hall currently runs a language revitalization nonprofit with him called the Aasaisstto Language Society. The Big Bull Writing System includes all sounds and special characters needed to preserve the sounds (for the Blackfoot language) correctly, it allows language learners to speak well and it allows fluent speakers to read and write in their original talk for the first time. 

“I can't emphasize this enough, when it comes to reading and writing our language, it has been a battle internally in certain ways. And I have a lot of empathy for that, because reading and writing was introduced to us in a violent way, and also in a tricky way, right?” Hall said. “The treaties, they wrote them down and then they broke them. And we thought, ‘Well, what good is reading and writing?’ Children are taken to boarding schools and forced to read and speak English. So there's this negative response there for that generation, and perhaps that negative response permeated through us.”

He said the sentiment that Blackfeet people don’t need to read or write their language to speak it is true, but because people aren’t raised speaking it as their first language, it’s a “luxury they do not have.” So, as a linguist, finding Big Bull’s writing system was like finding gold, Hall said, because he had been using a different writing system that had holes in it, knowing it could be improved. 

“Meeting William Big Bull, this writing system just opened up the world for me. Then I just started investing in the language and that would be when I was in my mid-20s… his usage of the language is just beautiful,” Hall said. 

Learning the Blackfoot language meant he was also now a teacher of it.  

“When I made the decision that I wanted to speak Blackfoot, that I wanted to be fluent in it. When I made that decision, I was making the decision to become a teacher,” Hall said. 

It’s just the reality of the situation, Hall said, when someone takes up the torch to learn the language fluently, people will start asking questions about it. 

“I’ll be sitting in the sauna with other guys and then they'll ask me, ‘Hey, what is this word?’ And then I'll talk to them and get it, some of them will ask about stories. Every week, somebody texts me or messages me on Facebook or whatever social media asks me how to say their name in Blackfoot or how to say some type of phrase,” Hall said. 

Hall views himself as an anthropologist. He said as someone who listens to stories for a living, there’s a responsibility to uplift them when you can. 

In his position with Browning Public Schools, he gets to share many different aspects of Blackfeet culture with students. The program’s February newsletter includes Piikuni terminology for many different phrases related to love  — following a Valentine's Day theme. The emphasis on language is clear as it’s woven throughout, including English names of people as well as their Blackfoot names. And on their Youtube channel, Hall is seen donning a puppet and teaching phrases like “I go to school in Browning.” The curriculum also focuses on history, culture and design, incorporating traditional storytelling, games and celebrations. 

Beyond the school, Hall also educates about Blackfeet history while participating in Glacier National Park’s Native America Speaks program.

Though he’s dedicated his life to educating others about Blackfeet culture and language, he believes all people carry their culture with them everyday — that gets passed on to children, family, friends and people all around us. 

“Carrying and knowing the language just makes me appreciate my community more. Because I guess I can articulate about it in a more rich fashion, because the Blackfoot language is very rich … I just always been an anthropologist, my whole entire life. Listening to stories, you have an ethical obligation to promote those stories as you heard them, but it also makes you more rich as a person, because by learning who others are, you learn more about yourself,” Hall said. 


Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.