Pushing Boundaries: Saving the Arapaho language from the brink of extinction

Published: Jan. 10, 2017
Arapaho chiefs at a gathering wearing headdresses
Young Arapaho dancers in traditional Arapaho dress

As fluent speakers age, professor and student hurry to collect their stories 

The Arapaho language, native to the Great Plains, is at risk of disappearing. Fewer children are learning the linguistic traditions from their elders, making an invaluable oral archive of traditional knowledge vulnerable to being lost.

Professor Andrew Cowell and doctoral student Irina Wagner are part of an effort to save the language with the Arapaho Language Project. They fear Arapaho will fade away after the fluent elderly speakers are gone.

“The Arapaho language is highly endangered,” said Cowell, chair of the Linguistics Department. “There are only about 200 people who speak it. Of the fluent speakers, no one is younger than 60.”

The Arapaho Language Project is a website created by students and faculty in the Department of Linguistics to support the revival of the Arapaho language and to serve as a resource for learners. The website is rich in content, containing language lessons, a dictionary, a pronunciation guide, bilingual curriculum materials and examples of the language being used in everyday life.

Cowell and Wagner (Ling, Anthro ‘14, MA ’14 Ling), a linguistics doctoral student, have recorded the oral histories of elders on reservations in Wyoming and Oklahoma. The recordings provide a wealth of valuable language information and background on the Arapaho way of life. 

They have recorded accounts of how the Arapaho survived during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II and how they made the transition from living as nomads, hunting deer and gathering foods to becoming ranchers, farmers and gardeners.

The language project began in 2003 with a grant from the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities to create an educational outreach website about the Arapaho tribe in general. The content was aimed at third-graders, which is the age when students in Colorado study the Arapaho.

When people on the reservations began using the language section on the original website, Cowell enlisted Wagner to help redesign the website to shift the focus to the language for users of all ages.

Wagner travels to the reservations to talk with the elderly women. After five years of trying to learn Arapaho, she is still not as proficient as she would like to be.

“It’s an extremely difficult language to learn,” she said. “For pronunciation and sentence structure. There are short vowels, long vowels, double long vowels. There are animate and inanimate objects, which don’t always translate to living and non-living. For example, ‘raspberry’ is inanimate and ‘strawberry’ is animate.”

Describing their world

English words are followed by the Arapaho words and their translations. The language uses the numeral 3 to represent the “th” sound. 

  • Western kingbird, nii'eihii niitouu, "hollering bird" (makes noisy, chattery calls)
  • Hermit thrush, nookoniibei'it, "sings all night" (which it does, almost)
  • Hummingbird, hotein3e'eneihii, "noisy winged one" 
  • Pocket gopher, nouuciitoo3eihii, "it blows dirt out of the ground" 
  • Wolverine, seihiwox, "weasel bear"
  • Lynx, 3ouuyoteebexookee, "pointed eared mountain lion"
  • Cottonwood, hee3neebes, "true/real wood" 
  • Subalpine fir, nii'ibouti', "it smells good"
  • Snowberry, 3iikonibino, "ghost berries" (because they’re white)

The project is not just about preserving the language, although that’s important enough. It’s also about preserving the stories, the narratives, the songs and the ethnohistory of their tribe. It helps document a different way of looking at the world.

The language is interwoven into the fabric of the Colorado land and culture. While the Arapaho lived mainly on the plains of Colorado, they spent time hunting in the Rocky Mountain National Park area. Several places in the state get their names from Arapaho, such as Kawuneeche Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park, from Arapaho "koo'ohwuunii," meaning "coyote river," and the Never Summer Mountains, from Arapaho "niiciibiicei'i," meaning "they are never summery."

Understanding the meanings of the Arapaho names for animals, plants and places offers an insight into the Arapaho view of nature and the landscape.

“The Arapaho name of the bird or animal gives you a sense of how the Arapaho saw the animal, what feature seemed most interesting or salient to them,” Cowell said. “Knowing the Arapaho gives you a new perspective on the landscape and the things in it. It’s the same for place names: The ridge opposite Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is "beniixotoyou'u," which is ‘bald mountains,' for example.”

In an effort to keep the language alive and modern, Arapaho elders coined names for technology: Facebook is “gossip,” Twitter is “little gossip” and the internet means “everything is connected together.”

Wagner has found people between the ages of 18 and 35 often don’t have access to official Arapaho classes or even to fluent elders. So, the only way for them to learn the language and traditions of their community is by using this website. Many are interested in learning the language because it better connects them with the tribe and defines their Arapaho identity.

“The ladies I work with are amazing women,” Wagner said. “Talking with them is like talking to your grandmother, but they are well versed in internet technology. This website connects the current speakers to the younger generation who didn’t get the chance to learn the language.” 

    Click to download the full transcript and translation of the "Nihoo3oo and the Fox" audio clip above.