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The Lily Gladstone Effect: A Teacher Explains the Value of Indigenous Language Immersion

When Lily Gladstone accepted the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture drama earlier this year, she used Blackfeet language in her acceptance speech.

The presence of the indigenous language in such a star-studded ceremony struck a chord across the country, especially within the halls of the Browning public school district in Montana. Since 2017, Robert Hall has served as Blackfeet Native American studies director for the district, where he currently leads a Blackfoot language immersion program for grades kindergarten to 8.

Hall—whom Gladstone referenced in an interview as a good friend—said he and many others in Indian Country are proud of Gladstone’s role in shining a spotlight on such a key cultural and spiritual part of their identity.

The district’s program now has a staff of nine immersion teachers, nine Blackfeet Native American studies specialists, an instructional coach, and other team players, Hall said. The district offers language and history courses for grades prekindergarten through high school as well. Though additional funding can better support programming, he added.

As Gladstone is up for the best actress award at March 10’s Academy Awards ceremony for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Hall spoke with Education Week about the excitement over Gladstone’s nomination, and the value of investing in revitalizing indigenous languages.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it worthwhile to invest in indigenous language programs?

Part of it is that language encompasses the whole human spirit and our spirit is embodied within our language. It’s worth it to not just our mental wellbeing but for our spiritual wellbeing as well. It’s also important for us to retain our sovereignty as a distinct people, and our language will easily do that.

And not only that, it’s a source of great beauty. And as human beings, we are inclined to protect beauty and honor it. It is this beautiful thing that has been passed down from our ancestors, and it still exists today, despite the colonial forces’ attempt to eradicate it. Being in this world we live in now, seeing this wonderful, beautiful expression that’s still here. We can’t help but save that, because that is human.

The other reason why is that it will help us establish a stronger community and economy. We have seen that by teaching our language to our community, those individuals love themselves more. And that is the ultimate goal in education in my opinion, to get your students to love themselves, to love life, to see the beauty in not just art but the beauty in the things that we have to do every day. The more we teach our language, the more our community is going to love itself. And we need that.

What are some of the challenges in running such a program?

One of the challenges is just the simple fact that we are scarred people from this legacy of colonization. And we have to navigate around these scars, and we have to face some uncomfortable pain in order to revitalize our language. We are a sensitive people in certain respects. And whenever our language is at the forefront, that sensitivity just grows. You had children who were brought to boarding schools, ripped away from their families, and they were violently forced to speak another language. And so we still have remnants of that pain reverberating in our community.

Part of the reason why it’s so difficult is that in Blackfoot and English, the languages have almost nothing in common. Conceptually, it’s really divorced from the English language. Literacy is a very powerful thing. And we want to include literacy to our language revitalization efforts. And that’s been a very big hurdle.

We are dealing with a non-literate language within a society that is extremely dependent on literacy. And we are writing our language. Recently we—at the schools—have seen massive success in the adoption of a uniform writing system that was created by a Blackfoot speaker by the name of William Big Bull. That, coupled with methods that teach the language in a way that allows students to discover answers on their own.

How did you and your students feel when Lily Gladstone spoke in Blackfeet at the Golden Globes?

It makes it so that her identity is non-negotiable. Not only is she telling the world she’s Blackfoot, she’s also speaking the language. It’s making it so that no one could deny who she is.

It’s also displaying our sovereignty. As a Blackfoot nation, we still have our language, despite all the violence and resources put into eradicating our language. We’re happy because the story of our language, going through the hardships that we’ve gone through in the past 80 years is massive; it’s important to tell. But at the same time, you have this indigenous woman who’s winning awards for starring in a movie that is explicitly about the crimes of white America towards indigenous peoples. And having this really uncomfortable conversation that we need to have about colonization. But the star of the film is still up there and in her indigenous language, is still telling everyone, I love you. She’s letting the country know, yeah, we want to talk about colonization, but we’re not doing it to win these awards and throw them at you. She’s winning them, and she’s going to tell you, I love you. It’s just instilling the sense of knowledge that our language is important, that it’s valuable, and that people will cheer you when it’s spoken.

And what about Gladstone’s Oscar nomination?

I guarantee you that a lot of Blackfeet and a lot of Indian Country is going to be watching and cheering her on. All Indian Country who care about pop culture, and even those who don’t, are going to be watching it, or are going to check to see the result. It’ll be a massive event.

How do you see your district’s language program moving forward?

We’ve been moving in the right direction for a while now. And now that Lily has been our ambassador, whether she wants to be or not, she will help us proceed in many ways. I really do hope that this will shine a light on our language programs, and maybe more people will be inspired to donate a few bucks.

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