The Revenant Helps Rescue an Endangered Language
NEW TOWN, N.D. – The Arikara language faces extinction. Only 11 semi-fluent speakers of this Native American language remain and all are over the age of 65. While the community struggles to keep it alive, Hollywood has nominated The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, for 12 Academy Awards. The film prominently features the Arikara language and culture.
In his Golden Globe acceptance speech for The Revenant, DiCaprio called for action on the protection of indigenous lands and cultures. “It is time that we heard your voice […]”, the indigenous voices and languages – including Arikara – that need to be heard.
The Revenant takes a critical step towards giving this indigenous language a chance to survive, bringing awareness of the language and, more importantly, rekindling pride among younger tribal members in their culture.
The Arikara language is one of the three languages spoken on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota that is part of the Three Affiliated Tribes or Mandan Hidatsa Arikara (MHA) Nation.
DiCaprio’s plea for protection of Native American culture is not out of place on the majority of reservations in North America, including Fort Berthold. This three-tribe community has gone through a series of crises since the early 1900s, including government land-grabs, devastating dam constructions, and the most recent – an oil boom that began in 2010.
In the midst of a modern environmental crisis, which has brought MHA Nation financial security, the Three Affiliated Tribes turned to saving their languages and cultures. The tribes are working with The Language Conservancy, a national language restoration organization, to revitalize their languages, including Arikara, through an initiative called “MHA Language Project”.
The Project’s goals include establishing a system for creating and supporting new speakers of MHA languages, including immersion schools and strong language programs in elementary and secondary education schools; creating sequenced learning materials for all language levels; and activating as many younger learners of Arikara as possible within the community.
The Revenant and DiCaprio’s message has created an international awareness to the Arikara culture and the plight of its language. The film has also brought a surge of interest for all Native American languages and cultures to a level not seen since Dances with Wolves.
Tribal members, especially youth, who have seen the film on the big screen are given hope that their languages are just as important as English.
Although DiCaprio’s call to action has also received criticism, MHA Nation is pleased about the attention that the film has brought to the Sáhniš language. Loren Yellow Bird, Arikara cultural consultant for The Revenant, hopes that the success of the film will get more community members proud of its use, and will also inspire them “to find it within themselves to become more proactive in using it.”
MHA Language Project is a project of the MHA Nation Tribal Education Department, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, and The Language Conservancy. The project aims to create as many new fluent speakers of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara as possible using best-practice solutions such as effective teacher training, creation of teaching materials and resources, engaging youth in speaking the language, providing assessment testing, and building apps and multimedia projects.
See the Arikara webpage for more information: http://www.arikara.org/